Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

30 August 2007

Hair-raising hairpins in the van of dreams

Hijab mural, Skardu
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
Currently, our life is pretty simple: wake up amid beautiful mountain scenery; drive along the river through more mountain scenery; stop for a dirt cheap and very tasty lunch; drive a bit further; then stop to go for a walk / chat to the locals / eat a delicious dinner. Really, it’s tough. Can’t imagine why we ever gave up work…..

Northern Pakistan really is spectacular. The only problem is that we can’t quite show it off properly in our photos because the valleys are so vast that we end up just taking a fraction of the view in each image. We just can’t quite capture the whole scene as it is in real life. And whilst it sounds like a huge cliché, the people are just unbelievably hospitable, welcoming and friendly. We get invited to people’s homes for tea several times each day. When we drive along, the vast majority of the pedestrians wave at us and many of the truck divers blow their comical sounding horns and look down on us with a big grin.

We spent a few days in Karimabad, wandering up to the fort and looking around town. Michael was delighted to find that one of the hotels had been taken over by the Serena chain since his last visit, so he was able to eat the Ginger Chicken Handy which he has been raving about for the past two years after he last had it at the Serena in Gilgit. The hotel management were happy for us to park the van in the best spot in town, overlooking their manicured, terraced gardens full of flowers and fruit trees and with views right over the valley and the surrounding peaks. The only slightly odd thing was that it all felt a bit colonial: we found ourselves sitting in white canvas deckchairs on the terrace overlooking the gardens, being served English Breakfast tea in white china cups. Tally ho.

From Karimabad, we went to Gilgit via a brush with a landslide, caused by some recent heavy rain. It was a bad one: they had been trying to clear it for three days without success and the Pakistani trucks were forming huge, colourful tailbacks on both sides of the blockage. There was a route around for cars and buses, but when we saw it we felt slightly nauseous. It was one of the tracks that we have kept looking at from the KKH and wondering how on earth anyone ever gets down there. A narrow dusty path with lots of hairpin bends (which at times was only millimetres wider that our van), led to a rickety old bridge. There were no weight limit signs, of course , so we just had to trust the locals who we were giving a lift to (we are a regular taxi service around here) that it would take our weight. The bridge waved worryingly in front of us as the van crept onto it: think Indiana Jones but in Pakistan and with a two ton van, though thankfully fewer baddies and snakes. Actually it was no-where near as glamorous as that, particularly when we climbed up the other side and found that the road had turned to deep mud. Of course we got stuck. No problem, though, because we are in Pakistan. Immediately, the minibus behind us stopped and out jumped around twenty men and boys in shalwar kameez, all of whom pushed the van through the mud until we could reverse down onto flat land, get a bigger run up and have another go. Michael managed to get the van to the top in one piece, after some scary sloshing around in the mud on the way up. Everyone cheered and said, “Welcome to Pakistan” repeatedly; then we all got back in the van and headed off through some villages, down to the river again, across another rickety bridge, and eventually back onto the KKH with a huge sigh of relief.

On arrival in Gilgit we discovered that it was a prophet’s birthday, hence a public holiday. The locals had strung lights up all over town and the mountain sides were dotted with Urdu words written in firelights, which stood out brilliantly against the dark sky. It all looked really spectacular and distracted us from the slightly tense atmosphere in the town (it has historically been unsettled here and there are a large number of police / soldiers on the street corners with hard hats and machine guns). We ate dinner in the restaurant of the hotel were we had parked, but unsuspectingly happened upon a wedding celebration, to which we were immediately invited. It was an odd affair to our western eyes: the men were inside the hotel and didn’t really talk very much, whereas the women were all outside in the garden having a much better time. There was no mixing at all and the bride and groom didn’t talk to each other during the evening. I was escorted to sit in pride of place with the bride on a throne-like chair overlooking the whole festivity. Given that I was still dressed in the same mud-splattered T-shirt as I had been wearing when the van got stuck earlier (whereas all the other women were in their finery of beaded and embroidered shalwar kameez), this was a little embarrassing. But they all seemed pleased to have foreigners there and whipped out the cameras and home video for lots of footage of us smiling and trying to say congratulations in Urdu.

The only odd thing here is the lack of women in everyday life. The bazaars are entirely male; all the waiters are male; so are all the shop assistants. We have only seen one set of women with jobs so far, and that was in a women’s carpet weaving co-operative set up by an NGO. In the Hunza Valley, at least, women do walk around the villages, but in Gilgit and here in Skardu there are just no women on the streets at all. It really does take some getting used to and it means that I get lots and lots of stares. Except for one bigoted bank manager, though, all the men have been perfectly friendly. They just ask lots of curious questions: two of the most common are (i) is ours a “love marriage” (as opposed to an arranged marriage) and (ii) why don’t we have any children. But then at least we haven’t encountered the views of anyone like the Chief Minister of Sindh (a neighbouring district), whose words were plastered all over the newspapers here yesterday: “A woman’s rule is a curse from which one should protect oneself”. Erm, yes.

25 August 2007

Khunjerab Pass and the KKH

We are now in Karimabad, Pakistan in one of the most picturesque internet cafes around. As we sit here typing this, we can gaze out of the window down the beautiful Hunza valley, over green villages and the fast flowing river, all in the shadow of enormous snow laden Karakoram peaks. But enough of that; on with the blog…

We left Kashgar after a very relaxing week and drove up to Lake Karakul. This spectacularly beautiful alpine lake is in a picture-postcard setting, with two enormous (7000m plus) mountains on either side of the turquoise water and a series of yurts dotted around the outside edge. The yurts are a reflection of Karakul village being almost entirely Kyrgyz: although we are squarely in China, the Xinjiang province is a real mish-mash of various ethnic, mainly Muslim, groups spilling over from Central Asia. Kashgar has a huge concentration of Uighurs; Karakul is largely Kyrgyz; whilst Tashkurgan (further down the road toward the Kunjerab Pass) is primarily Tajik.

We parked in a really picturesque spot next to one of the yurts, on a headland protruding into the lake. Apart from endless requests from the Kyrgyz villagers that we buy their jewellery, eat their food, stay in their yurt or ride their horse / camel, we had a very peaceful couple of days wandering by the lake and lazing around drinking chai in camping chairs in the sunshine.

The roads in China have been fantastic and progress is suddenly so much faster and easier than during the past few months. We also had the perk of not needing a Chinese guide with us the whole time in the van, as we had expected. Instead, we met our guide, Hu Wen Lei, in the provincial, frontier town of Tashkurgan so that he could complete the reams of paperwork required for our van at the border. During the evening, we visited the crumbling fort and then Hu Wen Lei took us to a tiny Chinese restaurant for some excellent local food and our last beer for a while (we have a dry month in Pakistan to come).

Hu Wen Lei’s choice of restaurant was much better than Michael’s recommendation of the café at the Traffic Hotel (where he had stayed two years ago with Chris and Rich when they were here) - our food there at lunchtime had been accompanied by a dead mouse on the floor and the toilets were horrendous. If there is one thing that the Chinese could do to make tourists better enjoy their experience in the country, it would be to build some decent toilets. Absolutely everyone complains about it. We thought that we had become hardened to utterly grim toilets after weeks of bad experiences in Central Asia, but China still wins hands down on that front.

The next morning, we left the land of Chinese food, beer and Rondo biscuits to head into Pakistan. Chinese customs was slow but painless. We passed the time by reading the endless signs on the wall directing the Chinese officials on exactly how to behave (such as, “Remember: the passenger is the master, the relative, the teacher”; “Be loyal to the party”; and a rather misfortunate spelling of “Be loyal to the country”). We passed the final Chinese checkpoint where as usual the soldiers saluted us as we drove through, in a very over the top, rod-up-the-backside fashion, and then started the climb up to the Khunjerab Pass at 4680m high. The valley is pretty spectacular and it was snowing as we reached the top of the pass, prompting us to feel very sorry for the soldiers who were standing up there for seemingly not very much reason at all.

At the top of the pass, we switched to the left hand side of the road for the first time since we left the UK. It is feels very odd to be back on the left after 14,000 miles of driving on the right. The first Pakistani checkpoint came as a very refreshing change to the checkpoints in former-Soviet countries: the two guards had absolutely no interest whatsoever in checking our passports, but were far more interested in welcoming us to Pakistan with broad smiles and inviting us into their hut for tea. We politely declined as we wanted to get to Sost to immigrate, so we meandered down the switchbacks on the valley road. The road condition had deteriorated as soon as we got into Pakistan and it is easy to see why. The mountains are very much in charge around here and the road feels very much like an unwanted guest, which gets encroached by the mountains very easily. Rockfall and landslides dotted our path all the way down the valley and at points it seems surprising that the road has survived at all.

There were lots of police and army checkpoints on the way down the valley, but again all of them were incredibly friendly and simply involved filling in passport details in an exercise book. At Sost, we immigrated easily and then ate our first Pakistani meal of delicious curry, dhal and chapattis for the bargain price of 65 pence for two people. After lunch we got our Carnet de Passage (the passport for our van) stamped and watched the customs men confiscate beer from some Pakistani traders who had tried to smuggle some cans in from China on the bus. Our van received only a cursory inspection – as soon as the customs men were convinced that we were not trying to smuggle alcohol, they lost all interest in their search and instead focussed on welcoming us to the country and telling us how beautiful northern Pakistan is.

We parked up at a local hotel and wandered across the river to a local village. Or at least we tried to. It took us about 20 minutes to walk 500m because every thirty seconds someone would stop to say hello and introduce themselves. Within two minutes we had collected the address of a local teacher and an invitation from the driver of a passing car to go up to his garden and help ourselves to apricots and apples from the orchard. The village itself is stunning: the gardens are full of flowers and fruit trees; the flat roofs are covered in apricots and apples drying in the sun; and the houses all have spectacular views over the mountains and the valleys below. We watched some boys playing cricket and wondered whether they appreciate what a stunning backdrop they play against – we suspect that they don’t really even notice.

In Sost, we filled up with diesel for the journey and got mobbed at the petrol station by the drivers of some ornate Pakistani Bedford trucks. The trucks are amazing: they are completely covered in paintings, mirrors, fabric and tassels on the outside and filled with flowers and decorated seat covers on the inside. We both got into one of the trucks to admire the amazing interior and had lots of photos taken with the truck drivers, who seemed far more impressed with our grey lump of a van than with their own amazing vehicles.

The past couple of days have involved driving slowly through the Gojal valley; walking in the lower reaches of the spectacular mountains, up to a nearby lake and glacier; and eating delicious local food. From here we will travel down through the Hunza Valley for a few days towards Gilgit, before potentially leaving the Karakoram Highway to go to Skardu, which sits in the shadow of K2.

Thanks for all the positive blog comments and emails, it’s great to hear from people from home. Special hellos to our most dedicated readers, including the whole Pitt family (get well soon NV!!), Pam & Norman and George & Margaret. We are impressed that you are still ploughing through the blog after all these months!

20 August 2007

A week in Kashgar

Well, here we are after a week resting and recuperating in Kashgar, China.

We have managed to recharge our batteries by feasting on gorgeous local food. We have become regular customers at a local restaurant where they are clearly not used to seeing tourists – the menu is only in Mandarin and no-one speaks a word of English. Despite this, we have had some really good meals there, ‘ganbian niurou’ (dry fried beef with chillies) and ‘ganbian siji dou’ (dry fried snake beans with chilli and garlic) being our staple favourites. You really can eat very well indeed here for only a few dollars.

We have also sorted out a few of our van-related issues. The water pump, which had packed up during the drama of our recent breakdown, has now been restarted using the none too technical method of sucking on the tap until the water eventually flows through. A local welder has reshaped and fixed the bracket for our waste water tank and we spent a couple of hours in a mechanics pit reattaching the tank to the base of the vehicle (though we haven’t quite managed to fix the pipe into the tank yet, so sadly it still doesn’t work).

On Friday we hired a Land Cruiser to take us to the next town of Yarkand, about 200km away around the edge of the desert. This is a slightly rawer place with no sign of the tourists that are ubiquitous in Kashgar. We explored the old town with its large traditional mosque. The front step was lined with many Uighur men (the local Muslims who look and dress far more like Central Asians than the native Chinese) sporting bright white caps and watching the world go by. From Yarkand, our driver took us north into the edge of the desert. To be honest, you would be hard pressed to realise that you were close to the desert at all, as the roads run by the rivers and irrigation channels, lined with small villages, colourful bazaars and rows and rows of mud-built houses hidden amongst the trees. Eventually we left the main road and bounced along a cart track for a couple of kilometres before coming to rest a few feet from some huge, bright white sand dunes. They were almost completely empty, eerily beautiful and very hot. We spent a few hours wandering through the dunes, clambering up to one of the higher ones (which is harder work than it looks, particularly in this heat) and chatting with a great view of the desert as the heat slowly sank out of the day.

Sunday brought the market for which Kashgar is famous. The Sunday Market was a major stop on the old Silk Route and still draws traders from Central Asia, China and Pakistan. We got up early to visit the livestock market on the southern edge of town. This is a huge affair set in a large dusty paddock, with different sections for donkeys, goats, sheep, cows etc. We started in the cattle area, full of rows of trussed up cows squirming in the heat as their Uighur owners bartered hard for fistfuls of 100 Yuan notes. The atmosphere is dusty and frantic. We found our selves jumping out of the way almost every minute to avoid being trampled by the next bull which was being dragged unwillingly past by it’s new owner (or at least by one of its new owner’s skivvies). Only slightly calmer was the sheep and goat area. Here young boys are employed to truss up rows and rows of animals to long ropes whilst again the older Uighur men stand back, stroke their beards and consider the quality of the stock. With the early morning light catching the dusty air, the atmosphere was fantastic - it is one of those places where you could wander for hours. From there it was on to the equally frenetic main Sunday Market, where you can buy everything under the sun, or so it seemed until Michael tried to buy a bog standard Casio watch and failed miserably. We bartered for a while over various things; browsed for a couple of hours soaking up the atmosphere; and then headed back out of the blaring sun.

Kashgar has been a really good place to spend some time. Although the Uighur population makes parts of the city feel very Central Asian, in other ways it feels very Chinese: there is a huge People’s Square; a suitably imposing statue of Chairman Mao; lots of colourful Mandarin shop signs; and Chinese products which bear a remarkable similarity to familiar Western goods, but at around half the price. The people have been much friendlier than Michael remembers from his trip a couple of years ago. The streets are so much more interesting here than in many of the former Soviet states which we have travelled through, where the shops have little stock and often you can barely distinguish between shops and houses. None of that here – the “high street” is brimming with life, from well heeled shoppers to Uighur men selling fruit on every corner.

The filthiness of the children here is one thing that has really shocked us, though. It is far, far worse than anywhere in Central Asia. You find yourself wandering around the streets and tripping over babies rolling around in the dust wearing next to nothing, caked in dirt and with no adults around who might potentially be responsible for them. In particular, one custom which has surprised and slightly disgusted us has been the totally lack of nappies for either Uighur or Chinese children. Children ranging from up until about five years old wear trousers which have a huge slit front to back and then just scrabble around in the dirt to go to the toilet wherever they need. That combined with the incessant spitting / hawking of the local men (“No Spitting” signs are common, but entirely ignored) means that the streets don’t feel like the most hygienic at times.

From here we will start our journey down the Karakoram Highway, spending another few days in China and then crossing into Pakistan. We are keeping our fingers crossed that we can get through to Islamabad and onto Lahore, as the security situation on parts of the KKH and in Islamabad isn’t what we would have hoped for. We are liaising with our Embassy regularly and monitoring the situation, but keep your fingers crossed that it all calms down soon.

16 August 2007

Bye Bye Central Asia; Hello China

Big Mao, Kashgar
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
We are now in Kashgar, having made it safely over the Torugart Pass, which is pretty spectacular. This crossing had been in the planning ever since Christmas due to the amount of paperwork that is required to take a foreign vehicle into China, and we were glad that we had done it all in advance – some poor Belgians turned up in a Land Rover and couldn’t get in as they had no permits, so they had to abandon their vehicle and will now have to spend days on a train to Beijing sorting the whole fiasco out. We felt really sorry for them, especially as they have a nine year old daughter in tow.

The border crossing involved a really long and fairly exhausting day over terrible Kyrgyz roads, driving in dust clouds so big that we have only a metre of visibility at points. After waiting for a couple of hours in the cold at the top of the pass, we were met by the infamous John Hu of John’s Café in Kashgar, who had reams of paperwork for our van, including copies of our Chinese registration plate and a big CHN sign for our van. Although there were several Chinese customs checks, vehicle inspections (including having our bags scanned on an airport-style security machine for the first time on this trip), John oiled the wheels nicely and we got through it all slowly but without a hitch.

We descended down through a huge canyon in the evening light. As we came within sight of Kashgar, a proper motorway appeared. That might not sound all that exciting, but that is because you haven’t all just spent weeks on Central Asia roads. We were very excited indeed and enjoyed every minute of driving on a flat road. They even had a toll booth…. it’s like a different world.

We are parked in the car park of the Seman Hotel in Kashgar and have spent the last few days enjoying eating Chinese food; wandering around the city; visiting the huge Chairman Mao statue in the main square; and also looking around the very interesting, friendly old town and bazaar. The bazaar is really reminiscent of Central Asia in terms of wattle and daub houses; food stalls on every street corner; donkeys pulling carts laden with food; bicycles everywhere; and the Uighur people, who look and dress very much like Central Asians. There is so much going on in the bazaar: whether it be baking bread in clay stoves (a big hole in which the bread is stuck around the sides to cook, like a tandoori oven); mending bikes; or selling potions (so far we have seen dried snakes, flattened frogs and crispy hedgehogs on sale as medicine).

We will miss Central Asia in many ways: it was a really interesting and different region, what with its local dress of long coats for the men and a different hat in each country; fermented milk sold in old plastic water bottles on every street; everyone sitting in that slightly odd squatting position with their bottoms almost on the floor, which I thought only Michael was weird enough to do until we came here; really random things happening like being interviewed by a TV crew or having people stop at the traffic lights, wind down their windows and start asking where you are from and what you are doing; and (particularly in Tajikistan), some very, very friendly people. But we were sick of the police waving their batons at us; a bit bored of the food (there is only so much mutton stew / mutton with rice / mutton dumplings that two people can face); and we are glad to see the back of the region in which the diesel and our van didn’t seem to agree one little bit. Plus, it is really exciting to be in China. Everything is so different and we are soaking it all up whilst wandering around the city. Tomorrow we will head out into the Taklamakan desert before returning to Kashgar for the fabled Sunday market.

12 August 2007

Lake Issyk-Kol and the Kyrgyz Mountains

Kyrgyz Yurt, Lake Issyk-Kol
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
Hurrah: the van appears (touch every piece of wood available) to be working!!! And what’s more, the lack of a sodding diesel particulate filter appears to have made it a touch more powerful and a lot more fuel efficient. Who needs environmental filters anyway? And we haven’t actually noticed big black clouds of smoke coming out of the van either, which is what the filter is supposed to stop. So, it’s so far so good on the van front.

We left Bishkek nervously wondering how the van would fare and filled up with diesel for the first time since our fateful fill-up in Khorog. The road heads east (the far end of Issyk-Kol is, at over 78° east, the furthest east we will be until Delhi) and up in to the hills to the huge lake of Issyk-Kol. This is an enormous alpine lake (the second biggest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca, fact fans) with a fantastic snowy mountain backdrop. For four days, we circled the lake stopping at small beaches overlooking the lake and the mountains to camp overnight. It has been lovely to have a really relaxed lifestyle after the past couple of weeks and some of our wild camps have been in really stunning locations. None of the beaches are ever marked or signed: it is just a case of finding a track that looks well-used and following it down to the waters edge to see what you find.

On our first day at the lake we were staggered to roll up behind a pair of cars sporting GB stickers (which we haven’t seen for months): we had found a group of 4 lads competing in the Mongol Rally. They are driving from London to Ulaan Batar in Mongolia in only four weeks, which makes us seem rather slovenly! The downside being that they haven’t seen much of each country, as they have to plough on through to get to the finish party in Mongolia four weeks after departure. Their cars are old one litre engine jobs (as per race rules) and are both covered in sponsorship stickers and good luck messages scrawled in marker pen all over the paintwork. They must get even more attention than us from the locals!

On the south side of the lake we found a small yurt workshop which builds the traditional Kyrgyz dwellings from scratch. A local chick showed us round – demonstrating all the machines etc. The machinery used is really primitive, not that this was a surprise in rural Kyrgyzstan, which other than the capital Bishkek feels like it hasn’t changed much in decades (the men in rural areas all wear traditional Kyrgyz felt hats, lots of people live in yurts on the jailoos (summer pastures) and the main modes of transport outside the capital are Lada and horse (they are really devoted horsemen around here). We used the opportunity of visiting the yurt workshop to buy some traditional shyrdak, a pair of coloured Kyrgyz felt rugs that we will ….. probably put in a corner somewhere at home (if they ever get back to Blighty in one piece).

Our final night at the Lake seemed as idyllic as the others as we sat on the beach in our deckchairs and performed the standard photo poses / autograph signings for a local family. Unfortunately it turned out that we had unwittingly gate crashed an all night party, featuring an outdoor stereo (with only 3 different Kyrgyz dance tracks) and some dubious substance being brewed in a large silver pot and then smoked. The enthusiastic partiers stopped at around three in the morning only to fire up the stereo again at 5.45am. Oh good!!

Rather lacking in sleep, we have now driven over the scenic pass towards China and are staying in the last Kyrgyz town, Naryn, from where we will tackle the Torugart Pass. It is supposed to be one of the most difficult border crossings in the world, both in terms of altitude / road condition and also in terms of bureaucracy (it is officially closed to non-Chinese or Kyrgyz nationals, so we have had to get lots of paperwork in an attempt to get ourselves through). If all goes well then we should be in Kashgar by Tuesday. If not then I guess we’ll be somewhere else, though goodness knows where. We shall see.

A few thank yous; firstly to Chris Arnold for (as promised) supplying up to date music for our iPod. Our most recent adventures in Central Asia have been undertaken to the sound track of Chris’ “50 Fresh Ones”. Much appreciated – Kyrgyz radio is not all it is cracked up to be. Also thanks for the recent morale boosting comments on the blog from Pam, Norman, Auntie Jenny and Scasey, and other good wishes by email. This has really cheered us up post van-issues.

Auntie Jenny: communication with the locals has been surprisingly OK. We are now masters of sign language; our pictionary skills have improved no end; and we have learnt enough Russian words to get by. Everyone understands Russian here and if you throw in a couple of Tajik / Kyrgyz etc words such as “hello” and “thank you”, they will give you all the time in the world to make yourself understood. Also, we have found the odd smattering of English along the way: if you really need it, people will often go and dig out a teenager or younger child in the village who knows some English (everyone seems to learn at least a little post the break up of the Soviet Union, and you find the off child who speaks English really well). So surprisingly we actually find ourselves pretty much forgetting about the language difference: we only really miss out on really in-depth conversations with people, rather than having day-to-day issues.

Anyway enough of all this – we need to enjoy our last night in Central Asia. See you in China.

06 August 2007

Back on track (hopefully)

Kyrgyz man, Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
The VW garage in Bishkek tells us with great confidence that they have fixed our van. We are a little less confident than them, but it is moving again at least. Cue much celebration from us, including a slap-up celebratory meal at a really good Italian restaurant in Bishkek (which came as a bit of a surprise in this part of the world).

A suitable spare part for the van could not be located anywhere in Central Asia, so in the end they have cut open our van, taken out the offending filter (it had turned into a black crumbling mass of charcoal which looked suitable only for a barbeque), and welded the filter holder back together again. Not easly defeated, these Central Asian folk .

So, tomorrow we will set off (minus our filter), heading up to the Kyrgyz lake of Issyk Kol and then onto the Torugart Pass, which is supposed to be one of the most challenging border crossings in the world (it isn't in theory open to foreigners, but we are hoping that our contact in China will get us through).

Fingers crossed our van will make it over the pass and into China. Watch this space.....

05 August 2007

A couple of videos for your enjoyment

The last moments in the van before it died - fording a river in Tajik/Kyrgyz no-man's land, where the road had been completely washed away. We were very lucky to get across here, as I am not sure how easy it would have been to tow our van on this section!

...and a video diary from MJB sat on the back of the EVI Autocentre pick up truck; whilst scarily descending a pass on switch-back roads at the beginning of our 27 hour journey to Bishkek

04 August 2007

Stranded.... a roller coaster ride and the end of RTW2007?

If you are wondering why we haven’t posted a blog for a while, the simple reason is that we have been stranded twice in a week in the middle of nowhere (once on a remote Tajik / Afghan border and once in a back-end of beyond Kyrgyz village) due to horrendous quality diesel in Tajikistan, which combined with an environmental filter in our van (which refuses to clear itself as it should) appears to have damaged our engine. Our van no longer even starts; will need serious repairs; and we are an awful lot poorer. It has been pretty horrendous at times and a massive emotional rollercoaster.

On the plus side, despite all of the problems, we both loved Tajikistan: fantastic mountain scenery on the Pamir Highway; snow capped peaks; high altitude plains at around 4,000m; great views over Afghanistan; occasional herds of yak or sheep; the odd golden marmot sprinting across the road; and incredibly hospitable, friendly people.

If you are feeling very, very committed, read on for the saga of the past couple of weeks. We wrote all this as we went along (there was no reliable internet access in Tajikistan so we couldn’t post it). Sorry that this has resulted in a really ridiculously long blog, but being stranded, we had a lot of time on our hands, and it was cathartic to write it all down as it happened. Plus, we are testing our readers’ determination!!

Friday 20 July 2007

From Bukhara, we took a long diversion to the southern tip of Uzbekistan so as to avoid a border crossing at which we had been told that the guards are even more corrupt than usual (and out here that means very, very corrupt). The drive was through some pretty impressive mountains, though, so we didn’t mind at all. It is good to be back in mountainous scenery again for the first time since Poland – endless stretches of flat Kazakh plain are all very well, but the view gets a bit monotonous after a while.

The border crossing all went incredibly smoothly; only three hours (which is amazing in this region) and without even so much as a van search on the Tajik side (that is really unusual, but the Tajik guards just couldn’t be bothered and were far more interested in reading their newspapers). We drove towards the capital, Dushanbe, via an old fort at Hissar. Whilst wandering around Hissar, a young Tajik shepherdess took us under her wing and gave us a guided tour of the local sights, namely the fortress, the “holy” spring and the herds of cows and goats. She was deaf, so the language barrier for once made no difference and she understood the international language of hand gestures and pictionary better than most.

We had to stay in a hotel in Dushanbe in order to comply with local bureaucracy regarding registration. Amusingly, we were stopped in the street and interviewed by Tajik television about our views on the place about two minutes after we arrived, so we just smiled and said polite things. Dushanbe is an odd place: there was a civil war raging here until about five years ago, and you can tell, not least because the police presence in really high (they even watch you eat your dinner at the outdoor cafes). The “Delhi Darhbar” (part of an Afghan restaurant chain based in Kabul, which masquerades as an Indian) provided our last decent restaurant meal for what we suspect will be a while.

The road out of Dushanbe up into the mountains was pretty spectacular, with great views down the valleys; huge gorges; and enormous rock-face walls by the side of the road. We passed some cycle tourists along the way, slogging up the hills in the heat. We also helped some locals to fix their van – their fuel tank had dropped right out of the bottom of the vehicle on one of the mountain passes. Their solution? Jack up the van using our jack and then cut out the driver’s seatbelt and use it to strap the fuel tank back on. Safety first…..

Tonight we are staying in the courtyard of someone’s house close to the roadside. As usual, we were mobbed by children as soon as we arrived and have found the people very hospitable – they insisted on bringing food and hot tea out to us in the dark, despite us protesting that there was no need. Very friendly, these Tajiks.

Sunday 22 July 2007

Central Asia throws a lot at you. So much happens every day that even last week seems like an age ago. We left the courtyard where we had slept and immediately got stuck in a ditch. Queue lots of Tajiks turning up to help us jack up the van and put large stones in the ditch to flatten it out so that we could escape. We set off on a terrible road (though Kazakhstan makes these roads seem easy – everything is relative) towards the town of Khorog, which is at the start of the Pamir Highway. We got lost at one point, given the complete lack of signs, when we took what looked like the only available road (the only other route being blocked by a large rock fall). It turns out that we should have gone the other way and over the rock fall (no road clearing here, just grin and bear it). Some friendly local policemen jumped into the back of our van and showed us the way through, seemingly very excited to be in a VW van and with English people (they even took an English novel home with them, which they blatantly can’t read as they didn’t know a word of English, but they were just excited by how it looked).

We climbed up through some more spectacular scenery and dropped down to the Afghan border. For the rest of the day we followed the Panj River, which forms the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It was quite odd to suddenly be so close to Afghanistan and we were surprised at the huge differences between the two sides of what is only a 100m stretch of water – there is no road on the Afghan side; the only means of transport is a donkey along a narrow path clinging to the cliff face; and whilst the women on the Tajik side wear long dressed and headscarves, on the Afghan side all the women we saw were wearing full face and body covering Burkhas. It is exciting to be so close to a country which we only ever hear about on the news, though.

We continued up into the mountains, past several tanks which were left at the side of the road after the civil war and several signs warning of landmines in the countryside. News started to filter through at the police checkpoints of a landslide up ahead which had closed the road. We were told that it could delay us for a few days, so having given a solider a lift home (we are starting to feel like the local taxi service), we parked up at a café with the usual interested locals and prepared to sit it out. Thankfully, the next day brought better news and we were told that vehicles were starting to get through. Three Polish guys turned up on motorbikes, on their way from Poland to Madagan in north-eastern Russia (as per Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s trip in the Long Way Round). They set off to try the road and didn’t come back, so on the assumption that they hadn’t fallen into the river, we concluded that it would be worth a go and set off. On arrival at the landslide, it emerged that the whole road had been washed away, literally wrenched into the raging waters below by an avalanche / landslide. The locals are not to be put off, though, and they had forged a “route” of a sort over the lower reaches of the mountain side. It was a really steep climb up and down over rocky surfaces, though, so the queue of traffic was long and the inevitable group of spectators very large. After a couple of hours it was our turn and Michael nervously tackled the slopes, but the lorries had bedded the rock down enough by then, so actually in the end it wasn’t too bad and the van coped admirably.

We stopped for the night at what we thought was a quiet village, but as is always the case in Central Asia it turned out to be anything but quiet. Despite having eaten in the van, we were invited into the family home for meat and potato soup, bread, watermelon and copious amounts of tea. Then one of the local girls turned up, news having spread of the British visitors, and announced that she spoke some English. Cue an invitation to her family home. They make it incredibly hard to refuse. In fact, they just pester you until you say yes. So we ended up in her house with all her family and even more food (this time lamb which they proudly announced they had killed just that day), tea and vodka. The house was amazing: a traditional Pamir house with only one large room, containing platforms all the way around the walls for eating and sleeping; no chairs or tables but instead lots of brightly coloured floor cushions and carpets (even the walls were covered in carpets used as wall hangings); and no windows, just a skylight set into the huge, carved wooden ceiling. The girls’ parents even did a traditional Badakhshani dance after dinner to entertain the crowds. Never a dull moment around here.

Monday 23 July 2007

After the last few days’ events, we planned a short, quiet day today. It was not to be. We are now in serious, serious difficulties. Even as I type that, “difficulties” somehow doesn’t sum up our current situation. The words “creek” and “no paddle” spring to mind.

We set off this morning in some beautiful scenery. I phoned my mum from Khorog and cheerfully assured her that everything was going really well. We filled up with diesel and set off into the mountains. As we got higher, an amazing view appeared of the snow capped, 5500m peaks at the edge of the Hindu Kush. And then, very suddenly, everything changed.

A light came on in our dashboard indicating that we had a diesel filter problem. The remedy, said our manual, was to drive at 60 km/h for 15 minutes continuously. No chance of that on these rickety mountain roads. We did our best, but couldn’t manage it. Suddenly, 20 minutes later, another light came on in the dash. Closely followed by another. It was apparent that we had serious engine problems. In the middle of nowhere.

We managed to pick up an Afghan mobile phone network from across the river for the first time in days (I never thought that I would get a network message saying “Welcome to Afghanistan”!) and called VW in the UK, who informed us that the only solution is to somehow get to a VW dealership and have a new diesel filter fitted, at a cost of £1,100. This made our stomachs churn, particularly as the nearest VW garage is 1,500km away in another country, accessible only via several 5,000m passes. And we are on a road with hardly any passing traffic (and certainly no mechanics, AA Roadside Assistance or tow trucks). This would happen here – we have a list of VW dealers and have been closer than this to a dealer for all but three days of the rest of this trip. As soon as we are out of range, our (until now 100% reliable) van decides to pack it in.

More phone calls to VW later and we were tanking it up and down the only reasonably flat 2km stretch of road for miles around, backwards and forwards, trying to achieve 60km/h for 15 minutes and burn the soot out of the diesel filter as VW advised. Two of the lights went out and we started to think that we were getting somewhere. But the third wouldn’t go out, despite us driving at the recommended revs for more the recommended length of time. And then the other two lights came back on. We sank into depression. There is just nothing you can do in the middle of nowhere: 1,500km, several high mountain passes and an international border (for which even tow trucks need visas) to the nearest VW garage. Not to mention the language barrier – we couldn’t just phone someone and organise a pick-up truck, even if there was a pick up truck to be had (which there isn’t).

This is by far the biggest low of our trip and although we are in a beautiful area, we just can’t really appreciate it as it is genuinely scary being stranded out here, not knowing how we will get ourselves and the van out of the country before our visas expire. And not knowing whether this spells the end of our trip.

Thursday 26 July 2007

Since our last blog entry, we have spent three days stranded two and half hours away from the nearest town, parked in the garden of a man who has absolutely no clue what on earth we are doing. He doesn’t seem to mind, though, and his son keeps bringing fresh fruit out to try to cheer us up.

We feel like we are stuck in an episode of “Lost”, but one in which no-one on the island speaks English. And we are closer to Afghanistan than a tropical island. We have been utilising our survival skills – walking a mile down the road to a spring to filter water to drink and rigging up our outdoor campsite shower, hung from tree, as we have no other means of washing. The Afghan mobile network only picks up reception about 1km down the road, so we have walked that stretch of road (in the baking sun and raging wind) about fifteen times in the past three days, trying to organise for a truck to come and get us. The bottom line is that there is no truck. They just do not have recovery trucks here. If you break down, you get towed to a mechanic. If they can’t fix your car, you abandon it.

In episode two of this series of Lost, following our breakdown in episode one, we went to the nearest town by hitching a lift in an old Lada, with three of us squashed in the back. Two and a half hours later, we arrived and made some phone calls, including to Chris Brooks (who we had phoned on the basis that he has exactly the same van as us and, being a boy racer, understands more about cars than anyone else we know). Chris has been a star, liaising with VW in the UK and giving us a valuable third opinion when panic has taken hold. We spent most of the rest of the day driving around with the local mechanic trying to find a big enough truck for our van, to no avail. He did confirm, though, that diesel around here can be dodgy, and the conclusion that we have come to is that there isn’t really much wrong with the van other than dodgy diesel which has blocked a filter. Sadly, you can’t clean the filter without clean diesel and a decent stretch of road on which to burn off the soot, so we need to get to a VW garage. We returned to the van in another beaten up old Lada, which stopped approximately ten times on the way and eventually broke down. Our spirits were at this point pretty crushed and we vowed to avoid trekking around in Ladas any more.

In the third episode of this series of Lost, we spent the whole day trying to arrange a truck, with various different contacts in Tajikistan, all of whom we are told are important people locally and all of whom tried to be helpful, but none of whom could actually achieve any success. Chris continued to gather helpful information from VW. In the end, as we headed towards our third night stranded in a Tajik / Afghan valley, we decided that we will almost certainly run into issues with the expiry of our local registrations and we therefore decided to inform the British Embassy in Dushanbe of our predicament, so that we have them on side if we need them.

Being so close to Afghanistan, we are rather disappointed that the British Army hasn’t by now turned up from just across the border in a Chinook, piloted by some James Bond figure who can whisk us and our van up into the chopper, whilst playing “Land of Hope and Glory” on the radio and serving us tea and scones with clotted cream. We keep listening for the Chinook, but all we can hear is the crash of the glaciers above us echoing around the valley, which is rather more scary.

Sunday 29 July 2007

On Thursday, we were rescued from Stranded Valley near Khorog, not by the SAS or RAF, but by a rescue party sent out by the British Embassy, comprising local energy worker Aziz, his English speaking ten year old daughter, and “The Master”, who it turns out is the local European car specialist. He took one look at our van and decided that we should try to drive to Khorog in convoy (we couldn’t go by ourselves as if we broke down there would be no passing vehicles and no phone reception to raise the alarm). We were glad to finally be doing something and the van coped admirably, arriving back in Khorog in one piece.

Aziz and his family were fantastic. We spent the next two days camped in their garden whilst taking various trips into Khorog for the Master to look at the van, assess the diesel particulate filter, an siphon off the bad diesel (which VW said couldn’t be done as we have an anti-siphon device, but the Master managed it by parking us on a slope and getting his little helpers to suck mouthfuls of diesel through a tube). We then filled up with new diesel procured by Aziz from the power station, which we are told is better quality (though we are really not sure how good it will be). In the evenings, I sat with the women and children, whereas Michael sat in the outhouse with the men, watching Russian-dubbed Chechen war films and downing shots of Tajik vodka.

Once the Master had done some work, one of the three warning lights on our van had disappeared. After much consultation, including internet research and phoning the UK, we decided to set off to see if we could make it to the VW garage in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

We set off and the van seemed fine. We drove through amazing scenery on the climb up to the Pamir plateau. The views were stunning: snow capped mountains; high altitude plains at around 4,000m; occasional herds of yak or sheep; and the odd golden marmot sprinting across the road. We were so pleased to be on the move again and in such an amazing location. We pulled over to spend the night in the village of Alichur, a strange, half-Tajik, half-Kyrgyz outpost where a local who spoke excellent English told us that there are no jobs; no crops (nothing grows at such altitude); and in the winter temperatures drop to minus 50 degrees, such that people sleep with their animals just to keep warm. What a life.

From Alichur, the van buzzed along pretty happily to the Soviet town of Murghab and probably the world’s most remote whitewashed statue of Lenin. The scenery continued to be stunning: mountains surrounded by broad deserts and almost no traffic, other than a few keen European cycle tourists. We made it safely over the pass at 4,670m for some amazing views back down the valley.

Sadly, the van has just this evening started to feel a little sluggish going up hills and anything over 2,000 revs is an issue. We hope that this might be the effect of altitude on the firing of the engine, but we don’t really believe it because the effect seems to fluctuate irrespective of what height we are at. We have a horrible feeling that this all relates back to the rubbish diesel in Khorog and we are worried that Bishkek is still many days’ driving away.

Tonight we are parked outside a Kyrgyz homestay on the shores of the beautiful Lake Karakul, Central Asia’s highest lake at 3,915m. We have treated to a tasty feast including gorgeous fresh liver. We spent the evening chatting happily to some Dutch and Austrian cycle tourists. Tomorrow, Kyrgyzstan….

Monday 30 July 2007

We set off feeling really positive, but the van still had some sluggish signs. The road quality deteriorated, which didn’t help, as we climbed up to the pass on the Tajik / Kyrgyz border. We passed three groups of cycle tourists, but only one vehicle went past all morning. At the Tajik border post, we interrupted the Tajik border official from his shower so that he could grudgingly stamp us out of the country. The soldiers, who were living in converted oil tankers, swung open the gates and we entered our fourth “Stan” of the trip.

Immediately, the road deteriorated further, with muddy ruts, huge postholes and rough tracks over landslides. After 10k or so, the road was literally washed away and we had to follow a detour across the river bed. After this, we tried to restart the van, but nothing. No revs, no power, no movement and an ominous hissing noise from behind the engine. No mobile reception, no villages, no houses, no people, no passing cars. Oh sh*t.

We panicked (both), cried (me), despaired (both) and panicked some more. We were 28km from the nearest village and 800km from Bishkek (at least three days’ drive over the mountains). A Kyrgyz army bloke turned up and instead of helping, just took our passports, inspected our van and then refused to give our passports back. I was not in the mood, had a row with him in international sign language and pulled my best “don’t mess with me” face until he eventually returned our passports.

At that moment, the only Western vehicle we have seen for days started to cross the diversion through the river bed. Michael started frantically trying to attach the tow hook to the van, whilst I equally frantically waved down the vehicle. It turned out that the driver was French: a director of a major French energy company working in Kyrgyzstan. He even spoke some English. I could hardly believe it. I pleaded for him to tow us to the next village, though I had no idea what we would do when we got there, as we had heard that there was no telephone. He was a star and agreed to tow us, so we then had a scary ride on the end of a tow rope, which is no fun over these roads and with little braking capacity. We passed through Kyrgyz customs, where they refused to stamp our passports to say that we had entered the country or to give us a customs declaration (both of which will cause problems later on, no doubt), and instead demanded some European coins before they would let us through. What joy.

Whilst Michael dealt with that little lot, I spoke to the Frenchman, who it turned out was living for a while in Bishkek and amazingly himself used the VW-affiliated garage where we want to go. He got straight onto his satellite phone and had his assistant in Bishkek call the garage to request that a truck be sent out to get us. What a huge difference between the European approach and the Central Asian approach: it took him about three minutes to set the ball rolling, whereas in Khorog it took six days.

After much stressful towing, we arrived in the mountain village of Sary Tash. The Frenchman dropped us off (there was absolutely no way he could tow us any further, over the next mountain pass) and promised that a truck would be sent out from Bishkek to collect us. We have little choice but to put our faith in him. For the moment, he seems enormously reliable and pretty much the best person we could have met to bail us out: English speaking and has not only a decent Landcruiser with tow hook, but also contacts in Bishkek and a sat phone. It’s about time we got a break in this sorry saga.

Pali, if you are reading this (I suspect that you are not, given the length of this ridiculous posting), Michael says that he very much hopes that you are right in what you say: “all turmoil makes you stronger”….. because sometimes it really doesn’t feel like that.

So now we sit, wait, entertain / be entertained by the local children as usual, and keep hoping that a lorry will turn up which is capable of taking our van to Bishkek. Where they may or may not know how to repair the problem(s); where they may or may not have the right spare parts; where we may or may not have enough money to pay for what will no doubt be horrendously expensive repairs (plus the cost of a long distance truck ride); and where we may or may not find out that this is the end of our trip. But for the moment we are trying to forget about it and focus on cooking chicken curry instead. A few beers are in order, I think.

Monday 30 July 2007

We woke up to find that our water tank had been stolen (we plan to get it fixed if we ever get to Bishkek, but for the moment it lives outside the van as there is no room in the van whilst we sleep). Quite why anyone would steal a damaged plastic box and a severed metal bracket, which are of no use to man nor beast, is beyond us. But that’s what you get in back end of beyond towns like Sary Tash.

We instigated an interrogation of the local children who had been kicking around last night. They all gave different stories: some said that older boys had picked up our things and run off towards China; some said that a truck appeared, stopped, took our things and drove off towards Tajikistan; some denied all knowledge; and some got confused between various stories. We got angry and conducted house to house searches. We threatened to call the police, which we had no intention of doing, but it had the desired effect. A man from a community tourism programme turned up who spoke some English (no-one in the village knows much more than “hello”) and told the village that they were a disgrace to the Kyrgyz people, who are supposed to be very hospitable but so far have only stolen our things. Suddenly, a woman and girl turned up with our water tank and bracket under their arms, saying that they had found them at another house, but refusing to say where. Complete cowboys.

Today a recovery truck turned up from Bishkek. Despite us having given the model and dimensions of our vehicle repeatedly, the truck was way too small to carry us over the pass and on to Bishkek. After much shouting down a crackly telephone line to Bishkek (the telephone office here seems to date from c.1940) we managed to arrange that a bigger truck be sent out, to arrive tomorrow. Will it be big enough? We have no idea. And little faith. But we shall see.

For now, yet more sitting, waiting and wondering whether we will ever resolve this fiasco. Michael is starting to feel that this might be the end of our trip and that we should go home. I hope that he will feel more positive in Bishkek, but at the moment I have no idea how we are going to get there, whether our van can be fixed and whether we can afford it all. Oh, and our water tap has packed in. I’m not sure how much more of this emotional rollercoaster we can take. The past two weeks seems to have been going on for ever.

Thursday 2 August 2007

I (Michael) am writing this whilst sitting at the wheel of our unfortunately non-functional campervan. We are 150km or so from Bishkek, careering down a 3000m pass strapped precariously to the back of a bright yellow Mercedes Benz recovery truck. This truck is being piloted alternately by one of two exhausted non-sleeping, non-eating Russian drivers who have been on the go without a break for almost 48 hours.

We have been perched atop the truck for about 23 hours or so and have been enjoying the scenery, at least during those moments when we don’t have to draw the curtains to hide from the police as, rather sensibly, travelling in this manner is deemed illegal. The landscape is less dramatic here than in Tajikistan but equally interesting with long, deep river gorges sporting green grassy slopes that are reminiscent of Snowdonia. These fertile pastures are inhabited every few hundred metres or so by the Kyrgyz yurts (their temporary summer tented accommodation), whilst the goats, yak, sheep and cattle enjoy the summer meadows. It is very surreal being sat up high and whisked through this environment just like a film set flying by on either side – the occasional bemused local waving at the strange contraption passing through.

Our current two drivers appear to actually be from EVI Autocentre in Bishkek (unlike yesterday’s cowboy - we weren’t quite sure where he came from), so our plan is to drop the van off there late this afternoon. We’ll then retire to a nearby hotel to try and get some sleep, decent food and much needed showers before making any tough decisions tomorrow about the fate of the van and the trip.

Friday 3 August 2007

EVI Autocentre called this morning. There are no appropriate spare parts available in Bishkek. Their suggested alternative was to go to Almaty in Kazakhstan, but we have no visas for that and, as it turns out, there are no spare parts there either. Oh good. We feel very, very sick indeed. Not sure what to do next, but the team at EVI Autocentre are thinking about it further, so we shall see what happens.