Friday 31 July 2015

We take the road less travelled ... Naberezhnye Chelny

We are heading north towards Perm, having abandoned the heavy truck race that is the M5, the east-bound, pot-holed, rutted-bitumen truck route from Samara to Ufa and on to Chelyabinsk (we want to cross the Urals and set foot in Siberia, at Ekaterinburg). Essen AG is the first big establishment on the way into Naberezhnye Chelny. You may not have considered Naberezhnye Chelny when you last contemplated a tour of Russia, but the international manufacturing world is very interested.

They make trucks here. The Kamaz plant is the biggest vehicle plant in the world. It’s in the Republic of Tatarstan, and that’s the name of our hotel, officially 3 stars but to us, at least 5, especially after the previous nights camp. It has a cool restaurant (with floor show), obviously very popular with business visitors and well-heeled locals, and various languages can be heard at breakfast, including from both sides of the Atlantic.

It’s on the Kama River, a tributary from the north east, to the Volga, east of Kazan (currently hosting the FINA World Swimming Champs). The photo shows the northern sunset over the river.

The Tatarstan Hotel did us proud. Apart from the 10% discount, the 2 hour sauna and massage for Ian and Mike (including the birch branch beating), and excellent complementary lunch packs for each of us as we left, they alerted the press! And that’s the next story.

Camping again, at 54 degrees north.

We turned off along a narrow track into a forest and came to a clearing about 100m across. In the middle was a gas well-head or part of a pipeline. Bill said it was used for injecting water into the ground to encourage gas flow.

It was a great spot to camp, it was 4pm, the sun was still well up, we had cold beer in the Engel, fresh supplies from Achan for another campfire pasta, oats for Sergei’s porridge in the morning, a good stock of Bordeaux and not a rain cloud in the sky. We’ll camp here.

Bill took charge of the pasta, Spirelli Leftoveri, followed by caramelised leftover fruit. Sergei assured us that he didn’t know if there were any bears around, so we all hit the sack early. The mosquitos were subdued by the cool, damp air and the swags kept out the dew.

There was just this smell of gas.

Northern Russian countryside

As we’ve driven north the broad-acre farms with derelict collective farm buildings have gradually given way to smaller fields between forests, with small villages not far apart, we guess for more community security in the harsh winters here in the high 50s latitude. There are more houses of timber and logs.

But now it’s summer, bright, lush, sunny and warm. The wildflowers are out and everyone is cheerful. The cars consistently rate a big smile, thumbs up, and a precarious one-handed photo from other drivers. The truckies still wave and toot, and a crowd always gathers at any stop.

The fruit stalls, previously with melon and honey, now hold berries, apples, mushrooms and preserves.


The Samara Art Museum would have the Antique Roadshow crowd wetting their pants at the figurines alone. Samara was a closed city for years under the Soviets, probably because they didn't want to share it with the rest of the world. It's a delightful riverside town with a great boardwalk and beach. Of course it helps ones impression to be here for a perfect summer weekend when everyone is out enjoying themselves. We could live here, in a riverside apartment mind.

Samara also has various museums. There is one for Sergei Tolstoy with a room for Gorky. Tolstoy was from the bourgeoisie near here and left Russia for a period but returned and became a favoured son, like Gorky, publishing articles and books on the workers struggles.

We were led around the Tolstoy Museum by the attendants and engaged with them so much so that we were all taken to the kids section and put through the writing encouragement displays and creative activities. I think Sergei's physique might have been a contributing factor here with the last attendant on a lazy sunny Sunday morning.

We also went to the Fine Arts Museum and got similar treatment after it took half a hour to get tickets, one for each section of the museum and, as we had a Russian in the group, he had to have a different ticket. Rich foreigners pay more (they do in Georgia and the Stans as well). Then you have to find the correct ticket to give to the correct attendant. No worries it’s all part of the Ти́ше е́дешь - да́льше бу́дешь (Tíshe yédesh' - dál'she búdesh') mode of travel. Those that travel slowly go a long way.

All the attendants were most engaging, none of the fierce museum attendant stuff here. Hello, welcome, this way, then this, then go up here, all very helpful and even tried to answer our Russian 101 questions. They had good stuff in the place, spanning 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, especially some of the older Russian pre-revolution landscape and character painters. (Eat your heart out Marina)

Cheers Ian

On the Road

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Parking signs

One of the back-up Toyota’s duties is to replenish supplies, necessities like beer, wine, and water. We wheeled into an almost empty car-park at the French Achan complex at 9.30am. The place doesn’t really get going until 10 so we had our choice of parks and picked a shady spot up close. Sergei chose to stay with the car.

Forty five minutes later we returned to see a nearby car being hoisted onto a flat-tray truck. Their tow-away zones don’t muck around. It’s straight onto a truck and gone. We had previously seen a fleet of 5 trucks go to work in Saratov. And we had parked in a disabled driver zone.

Sergei had been trying to phone us but on our shopping list was a re-charge of our depleted SIMs. He had deterred the car lifters 3 times by pretending not to speak Russian. He’ll make a good economist someday.

Russian truckie fans

Refuelling at a servo Sergei was talking to some truckies who invariably gather around the cars and ask questions as to the make and origin of the cars and the stupid drivers. He found out that the only topic on the truckies’ channel at the moment is the old cars travelling slowly up the road. They are holding a competition to see who can get the best picture of the two cars.

Ian has suggested B2B offers $100 for the best picture but so far the group has vetoed further progress on that suggestion, especially the passengers who sit on the passing side of the trucks, and don’t want any lingering by the trucks alongside us. It may not be good for health or long life.

Cheers Ian

On the Road

Editors note: Russian annual road toll is about 27,000. Let’s not push our luck.

A Russian comment from Tasha: The Russian driver must be able to do two things. Dodge holes. And turn aside from those who dodges holes.

Togliatti – Motor City

Submerged under a hydro reservoir and rebuilt from 1951, named after an Italian communist, it’s Russian Motor City Central. A working class town, home of that little Russian workhorse, the Lada. The locals love their cars, yes they love their cars. And they sure do love and appreciate the Dodge and the Whippet. It’s cheers and thumbs up from every Lada owner in Togliatti. The Mazda / Honda / BMW / Chev / Toyota / Kia / Hyundai / Benz / Renault / Nissan crowd also make an effort but no-one identifies with a rusting, chugging, gear-grinding, oil-leaking, under-powered Willys Overland Whippet like a Lada-owner.

The Togliatti Technological Museum welcomed us like brothers. Free entry and tour, and please drive your cars in for a photo parked by any exhibit you wish. How about the Whippet next to the T-34 tank, one of the heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad? Bill had expectations of staying for life examining each piece in detail or at least filling the Whippet with more vital pieces of equipment that could be of use in the future.

The Museum has a huge display of mechanical equipment, mostly military tanks and vehicles, support vehicles, also planes and helicopters and a 2000 tonne submarine. A parachute transport section, trains and tractors also feature with a few space vehicles. There is little need for English translations and a good cafe with real coffee helps fill in the time. It also has a shed full of recent Lada prototypes. All of great interest to kids and technology nuts (is there a difference?).

Director Dimitri Nikitin was only too pleased to have us as guests. Free entry for a couple of photos of the car and while you are there we will give you a personal bus tour and then you can bring the cars in a take photographs of them with any of the exhibits you like, even drive them into the Lada Shed. Open House. We have found that whereever we go in Russia. Welcome, what can I do for you? Dimitri was a perfect host and we would recommend a tour for anyone interested in technology. We loved it. Bill is still dreaming and scheming how can he get most of it to WA.


John & Ian

On the road

Syzran and the Paparazzi Again

Syzran is an old fortress town on the Volga with a tower remaining of its 3 century old kremlin. It also has a very old monastery and church and the local market, full of very large fish in various states of freshness and drying that we were assured were all from the nearby Volga. It’s a pretty little town that is seeking to better itself.

It being lunch time we decided to try the local popular Lada drivers cafe lunch spot (John has this theory about Lada people, more later), the Stolovar, the peoples’ restaurant, after leaving the vehicles in front of the local government offices, under Lenin’s care.

We returned to a crowd and TV reporter (who seemed to take inspiration from Borgen’s Katrine Fonsmark) who wanted our life story. Sergei filled in for our incompetence in the Russian language and gave a long and, we think, embellished version of our mission. Ian was then interviewed with a local translating. After more photo shoots and group photos and farewells we were allowed to leave if we promised we would come back sometime. Mike says he got a promise of an email link to the TV broadcast.

Apart from the fun of it all the real takeaway message came from the translator. She sincerely, even emotionally, welcomed us to Syzran, saying how pleased she was that we had chosen to visit. She emphasised genuinely that the Russian people only wanted PEACE, and that they were proud of their President Putin and what he was trying to do for their country.


Ian and John

On the Road

Camping on the Volga

With a long drive ahead from Saratov to Syzran we decided to consider camping and smelling the flowers somewhere along the way, preferably on the Volga. There has been a general reluctance to camp in these foreign lands due to marauding Mongols, a deep need for luxury, and the thought that we have been there and done that. This was overcome with reluctance by some who had not been in their swag for years and with the help of Sergei, who slept 3 metres from the Volga in his tent in Kamysin a couple of nights back and said he had survived.

Travelling north up the banks of the Volga through fields of wheat, sunflowers, potatoes and pine forests was uneventful but with truckies getting close to take photos and the undulating scenery it was eye opening. You only get glimpses of the wide Volga as the road cuts well inland in places. The scenery is lush and the soil black and rich.

Bill took off in search of camping spots along the Volga as the sun was going down. The old cars trailed behind as some of the access roads were pot-holed and broken. He and Sergei were able to get some local info that there was good access some 25km north of where we were looking so off we set in the fading light. A narrow broken concrete road into Merovka north of Balakvo led us to a track through forest, down the hill to an old camp site on the banks of the Volga. There were boatmen out fishing so while Bill proved he has skills other than mechanical and did a stream of consciousness chunky cut pasta (what was around went in), John tried to draw a crowd with a rendition of the Volga Boatman song in an effort to get the fishermen to break into chorus. Alas to no avail.

The mosquitoes disappeared quickly and our swags had few nasties in them after so long on the rack so we enjoyed a very pleasant night on the banks of the mighty Volga. We woke with the sun appearing very early in the east, as it does, across the river, and were able to put in a full day of adventures as we went north to Syzran. We hope we have many more on the way to St Petersburg.

Cheers, Ian

On the road

Sunday 26 July 2015

Saratov Town

We stayed at the Volga, the once beautiful art deco hotel in the main mall in Saratov. We're sure Ernest Hemingway must have downed a few vodka toasts there sometime. We had a drink and ate across the mall in a place that Damon Runyon would have immortalised. Apart from Yuri Gagarin, Saratov also represents the heart of the German Volga region and the ancestral home of Peter Ustinov, for those old enough to remember. It has loads of theatres and culture, is on the Volga (who needs anything else?) and has a heart. The mall is long with a large market at one end and a large square at the other, plus numerous old parks and squares not yet occupied by apartment buildings.

We also visited the Radishchev Fine Arts Museum off the main square – don’t miss it for the cast iron staircases let alone the art. An exhibition on Alexei Bogoliubovs landscapes and marine works was truly wonderful. Also an exhibition of Russian cartoon sketches was beyond me but had class.

We left Saratov feeling good about the place. There were still many old wooded buildings near the centre and it still had a heart. And how could you not love a city with the cheek to have a street named after Sacco and Vanzetti?


Ian & John

On the Road

Saratov: Yuri Gagarin's town.

Yuri Gagarin ended his historic first-man-in-space flight in a field outside Saratov, way back in April 1961. We all remember the occasion and a visit was a must. A Memorial marks the spot. It is uncertain whether he was supposed to land at his old university in Saratov, or the local football stadium, or in nearby Kazakhstan from whence he was launched. There are relief busts of all the Russian cosmonauts, a reminder of the 2 women in the program. Remember Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya.

The Gagarin Museum was closed pending a local VIP inspection so Sergei went next door to the Gagarin Institute to lobby on behalf of his own group of international visitors. Twenty minutes later Inna, the Museum Director, turned up in her car and we entered to an animated tour of the small, well displayed museum, dedicated to Yuri. She related his life history and exploits up to his death in a jet crash. Did you know that Yuri was 1.63m tall (no long people in the cosmonaut program) but captained his college basketball team?

We all wanted T shirts but it being a government organisation had nothing to sell so we were presented with biros and a model of the Vostok rocket made by the students next door. We were all stoked and persuaded Inna to come to the hotel and look at the cars. She was also stoked by them.

Saturday 25 July 2015

Aussies Overland

We have found out over many years of travel that you can't help coming across fellow Aussies in the most unexpected places. "Shirley Hardy-Rix" she says, extending a hand after hearing me utter 2 syllables at our hotel in Volgograd. She and husband Brian are on their way to Vladivostock by bike, having already done the Americas from one end to the other, and the same for Africa, and much more. Serial adventurers, these two.

Have a look at this:

It was great to catch up over dinner and swap travel info and road stories. Brian and Shirley write books about their travels and are regulars at the Adventure Travel Film Festival held each year at Bright, Victoria. Rex Hewett and I went in 2014.


Driving out of Kamysin we decided to pick up a young hitchhiker and found he had more English than we had Russian and we haven’t let him go since. Sergei is a 22 year old Economics student who, having finished his year of Army service, wants to see his country. He is hitching from his home near the Black Sea to Lake Baikal, a mere 8,000 km, and dropping in to see former Army mates on the way. He has willingly included us in his mission and is determined to share the best of his own exploration with us.

So far we have benefited greatly and worked the poor bugger to death. We have subjected him to riding in the Dodge in the rain and endless questions. He has maintained good humour and has opened doors that are well beyond our Russian 101 and 102, explaining our ambassadorship to Russia and our exalted status at home (at least with our spouses). He doesn’t drink and insists on paying for his own food, taking his turn at camp cooking, and steering us into many discoveries, both historic and culinary.

The photo shows him hard at work explaining our mission to an incredulous TV reporter in Syzran. More on that later.

Ian Neuss

Kamysin on the Volga

Our hotel commands a dominant position over the mighty Volga. Here the river is a couple of kilometres wide. Freight ships and barges steam up and down. We have favoured 8th floor front rooms with water view. The hotel was the best in town when it was built in the first flowering of private enterprise in the early ‘90s. The location demanded grandness. This would be a ‘field of dreams’, a Convention Complex to which all would come. However, being built of the cheapest material available, and with the cheapest of unskilled labour and apparently not a tradesman in sight, it is now barely holding together. Two hundred rooms, mostly empty.

The security man is an unsmiling six footer with grey military crewcut. He is straight of back and broad of shoulder with a look that says I have killed many men so please, no Australian humour. But he turns out to be quite genuine in his concern for the security of our cars. The lack of windows and lockability at first horrified him, but he gave in to curiosity and our subtle camouflage of a simple car cover. And it's only for one night.

BTW Kamysin is home to FC Tekstilshchik Kamyshin

Friday 24 July 2015

Volgograd – the Battle of Stalingrad

If you have ever visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra you are ready for the reverence afforded the memorial to the Battle of Stalingrad on Mamaev Kurgan, aka Hill 102, the highest point in Volgograd and scene of some of the most desperate fighting as German and Russian exchanged control of the high ground.

Over one million Russians were killed in this one campaign, fighting back after the city was virtually destroyed in the initial German attack in the summer of 1942. The whole population was mobilised to fight street-by-street, building-by-building, even from floor to floor. Every German attack brought a counter-attack and eventually a full-scale assault, in wintry November 1942, which surrounded and isolated the German 6th Army on the plains (steppe) west of Stalingrad/Volgograd. With huge loss of life from fighting in freezing conditions, the battle was over by February. It was a massive blow to Hitler’s army and a major turning point of the whole war. Russia lost 25 million people in WW2, Britain 400,000 and the USA 330,000.

There is an inscription in Russian: ”Years and decades will pass by. New generations of people will appear. But grandsons and great-grandsons of the heroes will come to the majestic memorial monument of Great Victory. They`ll come with their children and bring flowers. Here, thinking of the past and dreaming of the future people will (remember) all those who fell ... defending the eternal flame of life”. And they do. Children lay flowers, old men kneel, cross themselves, and shed tears. We saw them.

This sculpture (right) symbolises all the mothers who lost sons, husbands, brothers, fathers in the war. The pond at her feet is a lake of her tears.

Volgograd the city

After initially good roads in the south (well, about Queensland standard anyway) the highway into Volgograd is rutted by heavy trucks. The surrounding steppe is brown and treeless, with little water as we approach the sandy soil of the great, wide lower Volga River. The Kazakhstan desert is only a few centimetres further east on the map.

Not knowing what to expect we were surprised at the sight. Destroyed in the ‘42/’43 battle and since rebuilt, the city skyline is dominated by Mother Russia and the war theme runs through the museums and statues. They are, nevertheless, not overbearing but reminders of the sacrifices made and memorials to the fallen. On this summer weekend they were frequented by young and old with the latter encouraging the former to lay flowers. All types were at the park and the Stalingrad Memorial, soldiers, young couples with I Love NY T-shirts, friends in Madison T-shirts and even a couple with Germany on the T-shirt. We strolled about both memorials taking in the atmosphere of devastation and heroics without incident. Crowds were friendly and ushers pointed us in the correct direction if needed. Summer might make a difference as it’s in full swing and people are in full summer regalia, the less the better and letting it all hang out helps in the heat.

We even saw a christening in the small church on Mamaev Kurgan.

Volgograd has wide streets, is very Soviet-looking but has trees and avenues and restaurants that make for a very pleasant atmosphere in the Toorak Road end of the city – fashion houses and phone shops and coffee houses.

We ventured into two Fountaingate-style shopping malls in search of equipment and supplies and were assisted effortlessly when needed, with lots of patience on their side as we tried to get concepts across. We could have been in Sydney or France. We ended up in a French Auchan chain supermarket which was very recognisable layout and stock from recent visits to France, and included a great selection of imported wines, with Russian labels. The place was very well patronised especially compared to the jewellery and phone shop dominated other modern shopping centres.

Volgograd has proven to be a friendly city if lacking in sites other than War Memorials and the people helpful whenever we asked or just looked lost.

Ian Neuss

Saturday 18 July 2015

Multi-cultural Russia

Then we came to a surprise, and thought we had missed a turn and were back in Central Asia. Imagine driving into Nyngan and finding it had been re-populated with Buddhists from Central Asia and Mongolia. This is the small city of Elista, 300 km south of Volgograd, in the Republic of Kalmykia, part of the Russian Federation and looking quite out of place. Our Lonely Planet – Russia tells the story but it doesn’t quite prepare us for almost total Asian faces.

As well as being a distinct anomaly in its Mongolian and Buddhist roots, Elista has a further surreal element. Chess City was built on the edge of the city for the 1998 Chess Olympics as an outcome of the predilections of a former Kalmyk president. It consists of the glass Chess Palace and many terrace houses, similar to the Vines golfing complex outside Perth. The complex is an alien and now empty extravagance, but provided us with shelter when we were turned away from the quirky Bike Post guesthouse because it was full. Three pretty local ladies posing for a marketing campaign added to the unreal atmosphere.

Basan is a young Kalmyk in Elista, a geologist, specialising in hydrology – right up Ian’s alley. He joins us for the evening, disappointed that we decide to stay in our ‘apartment’ and cook for ourselves (he may not have been the only one) and not enjoy Kalmyk cuisine. He compensates by bringing in some take-away and excellent vodka. An interesting evening, talking politics and international relations, as we present our western corporate media view of the situation in Ukraine. He takes no offence (perhaps pitying us a little), remaining polite, good humoured and genuinely curious about Australia. We swap details and he will see us in Aus sometime soon. He has already done Africa and Kilimanjaro.

Before we leave next morning he proudly shows us around the Gold Temple of the Buddha Shakyamuni, including witnessing a service complete with chanting monks. Mike buys a CD and contemplates his mantra on the road to Volgograd.

Drinking buddies

Day 3 in Russia, we’re bushed and stopped in a new city, the app has led us nowhere, time to re-group and argue our next move. We’re tired and need a hotel and shower. In my left ear a low vodka-slurred burrr —“I think that you are Scottish, yes?” None of us looks like Malcolm Tucker but perhaps he had heard our exchanges.

I have heard much about Russian drinking hospitality, manners and protocols -- it is impolite to refuse a toast etc. Here were three local boyos, some hours into a serious session, and ready to help a mob of travellers in trouble. One spoke English, one was a local “police chief”! A stubbie of beer sat on the roof of his car. We guessed it would happen someday in Russia, but please, let’s find that hotel and shower first. “Follow us”. When the road led under a rail bridge the Dodge just squeezed through. The Toyota had no hope, let alone with the roof-rack, swags, spare tyres and tent. “Unload them”, and he starts to fumble with the ropes. “It’s the only way, otherwise too far”. No way. Visions of bits of gear scattered all over the road, traffic picking through it, carried through the underpass one by one, then an hour of re-loading, re-packing, tarping and tying down. comes good and we stop traffic and turn back. At the hotel the police chief has dumped his 2 drinking buddies and has engaged Bill in serious sightseeing plans for tomorrow. But first he has to go home for a sleep. See you tomorrow.

TV stars. Again!

Our friend Mamuka Khoshtaria in Tbilisi has sent us this Youtube clip of the appearance of the cars on Georgian TV. Until I crack the gremlin that's blocking a simple link you will have to copy this URL address. It's a very well made clip. Have a look.

Now we're here things are looking up.

After the decaying infrastructure and slow pace of modernisation seen in the former Soviet republics so far, Russia provides a contrast. Once you get past the numbing indolence of the border officials you get quite a surprise -- Russians are just like everyone else! Yes, I know it's a shock for those of us from the Cold War generation, but they are friendly, helpful, especially considering that our Certificates from the Sydney University Summer School in Russian 101 have hardly turned us into Tolstoys or Pushkins. Ask for directions and someone says 'follow me' (or something), use an App to say 'I've got a cold' and the Ápteka (pharmacy) people offer a remedy, when the friendly policeman pulls us over (I think because he can't believe the cars and wants a closer look) and we ask for directions to Stavropol, he draws a map.

The cities (Vladokavkaz, Pyatigorsk and Stavropol so far) are green and pleasant. The streets are clean (except for a missing grate above a large well on the road in Vladikavkaz) and signposted, the traffic is considerate (so far), there is a mix of old architecture (one can imagine the literary elite of Tsarist Russia enjoying the theatres and galleries of the old spa town of Pyatigorsk), the Orthodox churches stand shining and proudly open in all towns.

For the first 3 days we drove through summer harvesting of fruit, vegetables and grain crops. We agreed there was a ‘Darling Downs’ look about the place, but greener. We talked (English) with a young grain exporter who confirmed the rich productiveness of this area (Rostov, Krasnodar, Stavropol). As we drove north east, heading for the Volga River we agreed a ‘NSW western slopes’ look – gradually browning. By the time we get near the Volga we’re in the Mallee – still broad-acre crops, but needs rain.

This is the famous Russian Steppe. In the winter of 1942-43 it was the scene of the most decisive battle of WW2. Over 1 million died as the German 6th Army was surrounded and defeated between the Don and Volga Rivers in the Battle of Stalingrad. More on that later.

Friday 17 July 2015

I can see Russia from my house (but getting there is another thing altogether)

The late British historian, Eric Hobsbawm, describes Lenin’s Bolsheviks as mounting an all-out offensive against the cultural backwardness of the notoriously dark, ignorant, illiterate and superstitious masses with an all-out drive for technological modernisation and industrial revolution. Our experience at the border entry to Russia from Georgia, as the centenary of the October Revolution approaches, would indicate that progress has so far been modest. It took us 10 minutes to get out of Georgia and seven hours to get on the road in Russia. No-one seemed to have any idea of the purpose of getting traffic flowing into the country to start spending their tourist or business dollars. Long haul trucks queue for days to get through the only land entry to the country from Iran, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. The skills on display indicate a Russian version of the Ballarat Diocese method of staffing this outpost – transfer the worst of them out of sight.

Things can only improve.

Thursday 16 July 2015

Final (pre-Russia) words from Michael Noyce

Now that I am back in Sydney and with the old cars presently driving through Russia I have been reflecting on the wonderful memories when traveling from Almaty in Kazakhstan to Tbilisi in Georgia.

But where to start; probably with the blog about our journey through Uzbekistan as in many ways that blog captured so much of what we experienced generally; wonderful food, people and scenery, great history, 'interesting' border crossings, the black markets and so much more.

For one with no mechanical ability or understanding, the old cars continued to amaze me. Two punctures for the Dodge (plus one for the Toyota) and continuous 'servicing' for the Whippet seemed to me to be the only so called problems, although work was being done on the cars when I left Tbilisi. Ian seemed to tweak the Dodge quite regularly and a DHL package from Perth with something to do with the Whippet's clutch unsuccessfully chased Bill from one city and country to another. The ingenuity of Ian and Bill to maintain the cars really was fascinating; not just to me but to many of the locals we met.

Most of the scenery was quite spectacular. We saw the extremes of the beautiful towering snow capped mountains in Kyrgyzstan to the featureless desert when driving the 450km between Bukhara and Khiva in Uzbekistan. The starkness of the brown, rock like landscape around the ancient pilgrim site of Paraw Bibi in western Turkmenistan was very interesting as was the very extensive irrigation of the cotton growing areas. The 'fantasy' city of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan with his white marble buildings, wide multi lane avenues, fascinating public buildings and monuments was almost too much to believe. But we saw the city and it was most certainly real and in many ways, beautiful and unforgettable. In Georgia we stayed at the beautiful hilltop town of Sighnaghi that looked out over the Georgian farmland, over 500 metres below. Surely this lovely town is the equal to many of the better known Italian hill towns. More importantly, the Georgian wine was as nice as a good Tuscan red.

At our stops we often met fellow travelers which was a surprise to me as I had previously thought that travel through the areas was too difficult for most. Not so it seems. We came across a number of Australians undertaking similar travels but in more modern vehicles. One couple from Sydney had been on the road for four years and shipped a Toyota Land Cruiser to England and were taking their time driving home. We were stopped at a checkpoint in Uzbekistan one day when a guy rode up on a motorcycle, put his head in the Toyota window and introduced himself. He was Pete from Victoria and was riding to Germany. We ran into him again a week later in an ancient mosque in Khiva. In Turkmenistan we met a number of people riding motorcycles all decked out with extra fuel tanks, big panniers, extra wheels and more. Because of the up to 50c heat, these folk would start out about 4am each day, ride to about 10am and then rest during the heat of the day.

John George and I were invited to an Uzbek wedding in Samarkand attended by about 800 people. The grandeur, extravagance, movement and color was quite spectacular and the music and entertainment continued basically without a break throughout the night. There were male and female singers, bands, huge audio visual displays with the music being a blend of Arab style music, rap dancing music, straight out western pop stuff and much more. All very loud but enjoyable and with more food and vodka than was possible to consume. Where was the red wine?

Border crossings were were both a joy as when entering Georgia to extreme frustration when entering most other countries which really did challenge our patience. But the crossings were without exception a great photo opportunity with the old cars for the many officials loitering around. It was funny when we were exiting Azerbaijan in the Toyota. Just before entering Georgia a soldier stopped us, checked our passports (the 4th such check) and then said "Cigarettes". Naturally we said "Nyet". He then pointed at some hand sanitizer on the consul, moved his hands together and then rubbed his face. He held out his hands for some which I sprayed on his hands, whereupon he proceeded to rub the liquid all over his face and around his eyes. He thought it was moisturizer and we made a quick escape into the sanctuary of Georgia immigration before his eyes stung and the guy realized he had been 'had'.

The soviet era and the Stalin purges and victims are well known and are a matter of history. But to speak to people whose families were personally affected bought this history alive. In Turkmenistan we heard of families forced to flee by the soviets into Afghanistan. An example was the family of our guide who were wealthy Turkmen and his great grandfather resisted giving all his livestock to a collective farm. He was taken by the Russians and never seem again and the family escaped to Afghanistan. The grandfather of Nick our guide in Bishkek was shot by the Russians because he was one of the intellectual leaders and there is a statute of Nick's grandfather in a park.

As I was about to check out of the hotel in Tbilisi on the way back to Sydney Ian introduced me to a man who was going to help with some work on the old cars. We had a fascinating few minutes together and he told me about his grandfather who was executed on the orders of Stalin. But more than just any old order. Stalin actually signed the order and the grandson recently found the signed order in the KGB archives. The man's crime was that he was 'an agent of the west'. His real crime was that he was one of Georgia's so called 'intelligentsia' which in Stalin's mind were a threat.

Very few people have the opportunity to cross the Caspian Sea on a railway freight ship. We did and what an experience. We slept in a tiny cabin with 3 double wooden bunks, ate the crew's 'food' in the crew's mess, wandered the decks looking at the freight cars loaded with sulfur and building materials, gazed across the sea at the massive oil rigs and passing ships. We were certainly fascinated and somewhat bewildered as the huge 154 metre long ship backed slowly into its berth at the new port of Alat, some 75km south of Baku where we thought we would be berthing.

The whole journey was an eye opener for me, but perhaps the most surprising was Turkmenistan. We had been warned about 'little North Korea", however, that was not really our experience. The 'Stans are full of history and Turkmenistan is no exception. The history there is amazing from the recently discovered Bronze Age city of Gonur Depe, the ancient city of Merv, the un-excavated mounds on the sides of many roads, the more modern history of the czarist and soviet eras, the earthquake destroyed and rebuilt Ashgabat and so much more. And we were in a broad sense following the footsteps of such names as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. In 2017 the Asia Indoor Games will be held in Ashgabat and we saw lots of infrastructure including new roads being built. It's nice that Australia will be participating.

And so concluded a most wonderful journey of unforgettable experiences in diverse and historical areas. Perhaps almost the last word should come from one of my fellow adventurers who said that ".....everyone has been friendly and helpful. Isn't it amazing that the people are just like everyone else?"

Yes, travel certainly broadens the mind.

Michael Noyce

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Bills mechanical blog. Bill Amann.

It seems like after travelling half way round the world in a little dog of a car there may be some words of mechanical wisdom afoot. Alas not from me, but a little knowledge has been gained.

Firstly the difference between preparation for a long passage and restoration for personal satisfaction should be considered. Ian and The Big Dodge, like our friend the Professor from Tbilisi, who disassembled every part, straightened, cleaned, replaced and reassembled to make a perfect car, probably better than rolled off the production line so many years ago. The immense satisfaction of having these engines spring to life on the first piston to the top, purr and then the exhaust growl on full throttle up hill is pretty hard to describe and quiet obvious, somewhat different from my reservations on the approach of a hill and the knowing necessity for full throttle; a little knock from a big end (don’t let it lug on too low a rev) and an eye on the temperature gauge ready to reduce throttle and double shuffle the three speed into second or first to take the next hairpin bend. Never fear, all is good, there hasn’t been a hill that has stopped the little car although plenty of fuel has gone up the brass Koala carburettor into the tiny 134 cu in side valve. These hills actually include some of the main mountain ranges of the world. Between Thailand, Laos, Chinese Tibetan plateau (bloody cold), Toragut Pass, the mountains of Kyrgystan and now over the Caucasus Mountains into Russia – Kosciusko being half the size and half as steep. We are then going to have a go at the Urals.

Now the daily satisfaction for me, that I have built the engine right, or replaced second gear that grumbles worse that a constipated boss or replaced the rear uni joint that squeaks when it needs an oiling. All the things that I would have loved to have done if I was building a … Bentley.

The relief when we hit the summit; select angels and ride the four wheel brakes down the other side, slipping it into top to boost the speed to overtake an unsuspecting truck or Dodge. My satisfaction will come when we roll into the final destination without major repair or replacement. The little car giving its all, 20 thou over, tapered bore by around 5 thou on leaving Perth, goodness knows what now, more blow by than you know what and not too many horses certainly not the 20 that she started with. But the engine pulls evenly and consistently and holds temperature even at 40 ambient compression on last count was 4 atms on full crank speed using 12v into the 6 volt self starter and throttle open, cold. Pretty marginal by my and the masters opinion (see photo). Too much wear now for me to put in the new set of rings supplied by George, we are going to tough it out, I hope, a bit slower.

Routine maintenance has involved spokes, wheel bearings, plenty of grease and occasional ignition timing and mixture, although I have abandoned the manual advance and tightened distributor down so it cannot move, tightened main mixture screw flange and set it a bit rich. Oil is generally the heaviest we can get and now added a super slick additive. We even washed it. Tires hard on the back and soft on the front as we hit some pretty deep holes.

Editors note: Bill can do intensive mechanics and Jack Kerouac stream-of-consciousness all in one.

First impressions. Mike Leggo

Esteemed blog followers, many of you probably think that B2B is a daunting and uncomfortable expedition, full of perils, hardships and feats of perseverance. However, as a newcomer to the trip I have been sadly disillusioned to date.

We have been living in luxury for a week at the Urban Boutique Hotel in Tbilisi, looked after by very helpful staff (Natalia and Ana - see photos), eating fine Georgian food and drinking excellent local wine, enjoying the ambience and sights of Tbilisi, and a couple of us indulging in sulphur baths.

We have benefited from excellent and relatively inexpensive mechanical assistance in bringing the Toyota back up to scratch at Tegeta Motors, Tbilisi. Bill and Ian spent a number of days in a backyard working their independent magic on the Whippet and the Dodge in preparation for Russia.

After a very enjoyable week in Tbilisi, including a brush with fame with the Georgian National Television, we then partook of the hospitality of Emma at Emma's Guesthouse at Kazbegi in the Caucasus Mountains near the Russian border, where the scenery is stunning and the walking strenuous. Emma's place was like living in someone's house and she looked after us admirably, including breakfast and dinner. What a capable, no-nonsense woman.

And the hospitality, friendship and honesty of the Georgian people has been a revelation. So much for hardship - so far!! Next the Russian border.