My friend Joe from Team Rubik Crew took the time to produce and create this great video while he was doing the rally this summer. He took Tupac Shakur’s classic “Changes” song and had different people he met throughout the country sing bits of it. Worth a watch, whether you’re a fan of Tupac or not!
I scribed the previous entry too soon. I figured that we would have an uneventful departure from Kyrgyzstan on Thursday and that there really wouldn’t be much to say about the process. That was very silly on my part to assume given what we had been through up till then.
The next day our first mission was the find a travel agency. I found one close to the hotel through our Lonely Planet travel bible and proceeded in that direction. However, like half the information in the guide this info was outdated and the travel agency no longer existed, at least in the location listed in the book. No worries though as we passed another travel agency while looking for the first one. We walked into Daphne Travel and asked about available train and flight schedules. Luckily some of the staff there spoke good English, which always makes things a bit easier for us that don’t speak such great Russian/Kazakh. They checked the train schedules online but came up with no additional information that could help us out. As far as flights, there were a number of flights outbound for Almaty but no direct flights to the capital of Mongolia. Apparently nobody ever went to Mongolia, because it was darn hard trying to get from anywhere to there! Our only option was to fly from Almaty to Moscow or Beijing and then take another flight from there to Ulaanbaatar. The cost of these flights would be in the $700-$800 range and they weren’t available anytime soon. Alternately, they had a sub-$500 ticket available on the 4th of September back to London.
We slept in on Monday and set off about the city in the early afternoon. We needed to develop a plan of action–we were running out of money and time. We needed to find a way to get to Ulaanbaatar soon. I figured that our best option from here would be to take a train to Russia and then hitch a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express towards Irkutsk and then south to Mongolia. It would take a bit of time, and wouldn’t be inexpensive, but it seemed like a good way to see the scenery in a similar way to what we had hoped to do (and it was less of a cop-out than flying). The problem was that our Russian visas, which still had an additional unused entry on them, expired in two days. We had to head to the Russian Consulate, on the other side of town, to extend our visas.
We were at the airport, it was late, and we were planning on taking a bus for the 12km ride to where our hotel was located. Unfortunately all of the buses had ended as it was near midnight. After coming out of customs we were immediately greeted by a man who shook our hand and expected us to follow him. Warning signals immediately went off in my head and I stopped to assess the situation. We changed some money at the currency office and asked the man if there were any buses running. Nope. He and his friend would be happy to drive us to our hotel for s small fee though! Of course. I had read in our Guide to Central Asia book that a taxi to the city center should cost around 2000 tenge or so but private car operators would frequently try and extort 4,000-5,000. I asked him how much it would be to get to where we were going and he replied that it would be 500 tenge (a bit over $3). Having been taken advantage of before and learned a lesson or two about how to deal with cab drivers I reasserted that it was indeed 500 tenge, not dollars, and even typed it on my phone for him to make sure. Sounded like a pretty good deal–who knows, maybe they just needed the money and were undercutting the competition!
The other teams we had came with were heading across Kazakhstan eastward, so The Alchemists and us decided to team up on the way to the Uzbek border. The road leading out of the city and south towards Beyneu was amazing–newly paved, it was the best road we had seen since Germany. We made short work of the next few hundred kilometers, traveling at around 80MPH the whole way and passing Dossor and Qulsary. We were hoping for these roads to last, but once we got to Opornyy our good times ended. Back to the pot-holed, sand and gravel roads that we had dealt with when entering the country–in worse condition this time. We stopped to fill up our car and checked the oil. The 80MPH driving in the heat had caused us to burn about two pints of oil which we promptly replaced. We had also had enough of our roof rack. It had sat empty for a while, and we could now fit everything inside of the car quite easily, so why have the extra drag on the car? (It also dripped into the car whenever it rained since the straps went through the rubber lining on the doors.) We took it off and gave it to a passing Kazakh family that seemed interested in it. They’ll ut it to good use I’m sure.
The change we noticed after crossing the Kazakh border (and even at the border itself) was pretty drastic. All of a sudden we had people waving at us, kids saying hello, and an all-around general friendliness that was somewhat lacking prior to that point. It was a nice change. We headed off towards Atyrau, Kazakhstan and stopped at a truck stop on the side of the road for food. As we couldn’t read the menu each of us picked a different number on the menu and hoped for the best. Collin and I got fried eggs, spam, and a bowl of hot grits mixed with meat–not too bad! After we finished eating another team pulled up at the truck top, one from Italy. They were making a documentary on the rally and had left a week later than everyone else and had already come this far. The five teams took off towards the east and were soon left in the dust of the Italian team–they had to keep up their crazy pace I suppose.
We headed towards Astrakhan, the last major city in Russia before the border. Again, we were routed through the city, this time during rush hour. Outside of the city we ended up going over an interesting floating bridge where we had to pay a toll to cross. We were stopped for the fiftieth time by AK-47 welding border security guards because of our lack of a front license plate. After a brief explanation of how we don’t have front plates in Michigan, they let us go. Note to anyone planning on doing the rally with a US car–make sure you have a front license plate. It’s quite a pain getting stopped all the time.
In the summer of 2009, two guys from Metro Detroit traveled 10,000 miles from London to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in an effort to raise money to assist underprivileged Mongolian families in becoming self-sufficient.