Day 40-44: Ulan Bator action

Dear friends,  after finally arriving in Ulaanbaatar (UB) and having an excessive first night lash at Club Vegas and Sky Lounge, our life as Mongol celebrities started. Our first TV interview with UB’s channel 10 was scheduled for 11:00AM followed by newspaper coverage in the Mongol nationwide newspaper “Today”. Everyone but Philipp (first victim of UB’s nightlife) made it to the interviews. We finally understood how difficult and exhausting the life as a celebrity must be: running from one interview to another whilst being hung-over from the previous night’s lash. Tough life!

In the afternoon Mathias and Eugen enjoyed a Mongol spa (incl. an amazing massage) and explored the city. Meanwhile Philipp was still recovering from his hangover. We then all went to Orange Club after unsuccessfully searching for food. No food and Chinggis proved as a deadly mix for some Swiss colleagues later on at Club Metropolis…

The following days we could finally get some rest. Highlights during that time included:

-          a coal-mine tour-          a traditional Mongol show-          a Mongol hard-rock band with traditional instruments-          more TV interviews (Mongol National Broadcast)-          shopping-          the Mongol Rally closing party (we were way too sober; and old…)-          the Swiss “pre-poning” their flights in favor of the Croatian coast-          Eugen receiving his first ticket for U-turning in the middle of a 6-lane street and driving without driver’s license, registration or any other document (consequently paying a 10’000 ‘Mongol money’ fine, ~$7)-          more shopping-          bad streets 2.0 on the way to the airport-          mega chaos at the airport (which made Philipp and Eugen almost miss their flights)-          visa issues 1.0 in Mongolia (making Philipp the last person to board the plane)-          visa issues 2.0 in Moscow (Eugen being turned down at the Russian border because the Visa agency had screwed up and he only held a single entry visa; effectively forcing him to book a new flight to Vienna and spend 10hrs at Moscow Airport before being “deported” back to the European Union; this increased the overall journey time back to Austria to about 23.5hrs)

Thank you all for following our blog. We hope to have shared some interesting experiences with you. Maybe this blog will also prove helpful for other travellers as a rough guide.

Mongol Rally, Team Alpenblitz– FINISH!!


Day 39: Finish line!!!

Waking up with what can only be described as a terrible headache from the disgutsing Dshingis vodka, we managed to find a decent asphalt road that would get us to Ulan Bator. We were all tired from the excessive driving the past few days and couldn’t wait to get back to civilization. In the afternoon, we finally crossed the city line of Ulan Bator. We celebrated by climbing on the roof of one of the cars and taking our victory photo. Another 2 hours later, we finally managed to leave the UB city traffic behind us and check into the hotel. Despite all the stress of the last few days, we were more than happy that we finally made it.

So we took off to a Chinese restaurant, the first decent meal we’ve had for many, many days. We enjoyed a few bottles of wine (the first since Istanbul) and decided to go to the Vegas night club in the basement of the fancy hotel the restaurant was located at. Apparently, we were the only people in Mongolia that had that idea. The place was empty which made everyone leave for bed pretty early. Except for Philipp, who met up with his college friend Thede (who drove an ambulance to Mongolia) and the two had a good night out, at least judging from Philipp’s physical condition the next day. Which is why he missed the first interview with the largest Mongolian newspaper. But check out the details in the next entry

Day 38: Ger camp at its best

We started off the day with a loooong ride ahead of us. Our aim was to reach the city of Kharkhorum (the former Mongolian capital at Dshingis Khan times) that is the place with the most important Buddhist temples in Mongolia and has a lot of ger camps for backpacking tourists just like us. Again, we were pleasantly surprised by a few miles of European-quality highways before we had to decide (after another goat meat lunch) whether we went the shorter way (less fun to drive on) or the way that had asphalt roads but was 50 km longer. After an autocratic rather than democratic decision we decided to go for the dirt road. This shows how democracy might not be so bad, overall.

10 km into the more and more moist valley, we found ourselves stuck in the mud. Sascha managed to destroy the back bumber of one of the cars while getting stuck, as a fact. We tried to pull it out with the other car just to realize that this car could barely make it out of the mud itself. Then the great moment arrived when we (almost) tried out our winch. While the five consultant looked at the manual, a local with a better equipped car (one of those rather huge Toyota Land Cruisers with 4WD) approached to help. Within seconds, he managed to pull out the car without his whells even spinning. He happily accepted a box of Turkish delight (the stuff that we bribed the Turkmen police with) and we could continue.

When we got lost (there are a lot of crossroads by Mongolian standards), we asked some locals for directions. Bad idea. They were just having a picnic with cold and fatty goat leg and Ayrak. Don’t try Ayrak ever in your life unless it really depends on it. It’s fermented goat milk and tastes like the milk that you forgot in your fridge 5 months ago. It also has about 4% of alcohol in it which explains why the guy was drunk in the middle of the day…

When we got to Kharkhorum (the cars did survive despite Matthias’ violent attempt to get rid of the roof rack when driving through a small river with 40 km/h), we finally found a ger camp that wasn’t “fully booked” (fully booked in Mongolian means they’re just too lazy to walk you to a ger and open the door for you – they were all deserted). After we cooked a nice instant noodle meal with the rest of our barbeque gas, the three Kazakh owners of the place came into our ger for a chat. Two of them were wasted. Like really, really wasted. It took us about two hours to get rid of them while they repeatedly expressed their sympathy for a small Austrian that used to run Germany a couple of decades ago. Very uncomfortable situation…

Finally, Serge and his Austrian friends found their way to the camp, too. We shared a couple of beers and laid the foundation for a couple of extremely fun nights in Ulan Bator with Serge. The next day we were ready to make it to our final destination. Check, if we made it…

Day 37: Dshingis vodka is not so premium

We all woke up with a more (Eugen) or less (everyone else) headache from the Mongolian vodka that has been advertised as super premium but rather tasted super disgusting. Alongside we had an equally tasty dinner: Maccaroni with tomato sauce, ragout, peas, lentils, and a bunch of sand (from the rather stormy cooking site outside the tent). Considering the tasty goat meat dumplings we get served during the day at various “restaurants”, five days in Mongolia are more effective than any Atkins diet.

We played cards in the tent while waiting for the rain and storm to end, which it, of course never did. Everytime Eugen won in this (“purely luck-based” – quote Mathias) game of “Arschloch”, he celebrated like Austria just scored a goal in a world cup. I.e. he got really, really excited. Everyone else simply played cards (and thus lost).

As this exciting night approached its end, Philipp and Eugen again proved their inability for this adventure and slept in the cars, with the engines running so it didn’t get too cold. The Swiss army fraction and Matthias behaved more manly and slept in the tent which must have felt like a rooftop party during a hurricane.

In the morning, we burned our trash with gasoline instead of this safety paste you get at Chinese restaurants to keep the meals warm. Way more fun this way. We even burned the entire part of the bumper that some expert (Sascha) lost due to reckless driving the day before.

The driving started out pretty well as the Mongolians were kind enough to provide a highway or at least less bumpy roads for a few kilometers. We got to the city of Altay to fuel up and get new tires. This turned out to be a good idea: Philipp managed to destroy tires number 3 and 4 (and is thus the sole recordholder). On the other hand, it’s surprising that we only had such few broken tires. The roads here are among the worst anyone would consider movong any kind of vehicle on: sharp rocks, terrible vibrations when going over 15 km/h, several rivers, and countless potholes explain why a good quarter of the teams have to give up in Mongolia.

Another reason might be that the highway just ends in the middle of nowhere. And then there is a 5 m deep canyon. If going at 120 km/h at night (of course, there is no warning sign), bad things might happen to you – look at the pictures. Some dude couldn’t manage to break in time and landed hood first in the canyon. Blood and all his belongings were still in the car but we felt it was morally wrong to steal his tires – even though they would have been perfect for our Suzukis.

Even before lunch, the local hygiene standards had their first victim: Michel had less food in stomach than before lunch. While Philipp refused to eat any more goat meat for the rest of his life, the rest of the team enjoyed their goat dumplings with a full bottle of ketchup. Good luck, guys!

We the aimed for the city of B… (it’s impossible to spell that correctly) where they’re supposed to have showers in the hotel rooms and an internet cafe. While we all doubt that we’re praying that our cars at least get us there. The variety and volume of sounds they make start to get worrysome…

We’ll keep you posted on the progress – only two more days to Ulan Bator!

Day 36: Keep on driving

After a night drive we finally reached the city of Khovd (capital of Khovd province) at around 1:00AM. The entire city was no more than a couple of buildings mixed with yurts (traditional Mongol tent-like housing), an oversized police station, a run-down town hall + square and a handful of gas stations. At 8:30 we woke up in our “hotel” where we slept in a 5-bed room dormitory (luckily we had the whole room to ourselves). Unfortunately the hotel didn’t provide its’ guests with luxuries like showers, so we all happily took a “Turkish shower” in the bathroom sink.

While Philipp and Eugen were unsuccessfully looking for an internet café (there was only one in the whole city which was still closed at 9:30) the others refueled the cars and purchased water. We all perceived Khovd as a very frustrating, sad and grey place. There was no life on the streets, roads were covered in dust, most shops were still closed by 10:00AM and buildings were crumbling as you looked at them. On the way out we passed a police checkpoint which all the locals circumvented by taking on of the several dirt-tracks leading around it. Sascha was not quick enough and had to ask for directions to distract from our two missing license plates which we had lost to the Mongolian steppe the day before.

Main insight on food thus far: Writing a cookbook in these geographies like another team planned is utterly useless. Thus far all food can be summarized as follows: Soup, Shashlik and dumplings with various flavors. Even though we occasionally see cows and horses, we never seem to get beyond sheep in Mongolia. Wherever we go and whatever we order, we always get served sheep soup, noodles and dumplings. While Philipp simply refuses to have sheep and prefers to go on hunger-strike, the others go with the flow and continue eating what they are being served.

We then had breakfast at a highpoint with lake view (Philipp: “garbage disposal site”). Matthias gave Eugen encouraging instructions drawn from his extensive outdoor experience on how to properly open biscuit packs(*), feedback Eugen readily received.

The day went as follows:

10:00: breakfast FINISH, semi-paved road,
80km/h10:05: aiming for cows with banana peels
10:06: first hit, bad karma
10:15: dirt-track, 60km/h
10:30: bad karma in action: inferior dirt-track and lake, 30km/h
11:00: patience FINISH, First beer for Matthias and Eugen (well shaken)
11:30: surprise: paved highway, 120km/h
11:38: highway FINISH – back to depression
11:45: met first Mongol Rally team, ‘visibly’ haven’t showered in days
11:50: first beer FINISH – mood improves, high quality dirt-track (i.e. had previous contact with bulldozer), 70km/h
10:52: realization that we luckily have a SSD on this computer, a standard hard drive would have quit by now due to excessive vibrations (all five spines and four axles still seem intact)
12:28: overtaking zee German team
12:33: first tire of the day down
12:37: being overtaken by zee Germans
12:38: tire changed
12:39: overtaking zee Germans again
14:00: eating lunch: dumplings again
15:00: on the road again
16:48: second tire down
19:04: camping site selected 375km from Khovd
19:30: tent set up
19:45: storm moves in and it starts raining
20:00: team contemplates to abandon tent and drive to city (100km or 2.5hrs away)
20:15: first bottle of vodka is gone
20:30: card games and heavy rain, water enters tent
20:45: second bottle of vodka gone
21:00: card games, motion to abandon camp is turned down
21:30: beer supply depleted22:30: strong wind and rain, Eugen and Philipp take shelter inside cars while hardcore adventurers stay in tent
22:35: Philipp turns on car to activate heating
03:30: 5°C, Eugen wakes up half-frozen and also turns on car for heating

(*)Lessons learnt: “Don’t open the pack all the way, otherwise cookies will fall out”

Day 35: Into Mongolistan

We all looked like crap when we reconvened in the refugee camp look-alike in no man’s land between Russia and Mongolia. The sleeping preferences of the team were as follows:

- Eugen and Matthias slept in a private barn. Advantages: no wind; slightly higher temperature; somehow soft underground – Disadvantages: waste of team money; they smelled like they cuddled with a goat all night.

- Sascha and Michel spent the night in the tent. Advantages: cheap; could stretch out fully – Disadvantages: cold as hell (it snowed the night before), hard underground (i.e. concrete); had to listen to the crappy music of British teenagers all night

- Philipp went for the passenger seat in one of the cars. Advantages: somehow warm, light to read a book; no snoaring – Disadvantages: uncomfortable as hell; just as cold as the tent after an hour; worst ventilation system of all options

When we woke up we had another great breakfeast: hot coffee (the water was sold at a local shack for 3 dollars for two liters – best practice monopoly pricing) and choco pops with actual cow milk. We then initiated attempt #15 to comvince the border people that Philipp was about to die within hours from a diabetic shock (yes, the next town past the Mongolian border was the only place since we left Austria that sold insuline), again with limited success. So we waited for another 4 hours until our car finally got cleared (pretty good considering some teams spent 3 nights at that border*). The customs check was relatively easy (actually the first time they cared about alcohol) and we were ready to leave in front of the last gate. Unfortunately the obese lady whose only job it is to check whether we got one stamp in our passports and then to open the gate accordingly, went on lunch break about 3 minutes before we got there. Imagine this: there were 20 cars lining up after about 3 locals crossed the border all day long. She sees how everyone is getting ready and just as the clock strikes 1 she gets up, locks the gate, and leaves for an hour. The funny thing is, it didn’t even upset us anymore (except for Eugen who already lost it earlier that day and looked like a five-year old whose favorite toy was taken away).

We started the driving on what were even decent dirt tracks until we hit an asphalt road that was probably the nicest since leaving Austria (and yes, dear Austrians, no one charged us half a month’s income for using this highway). Unfortunately this joy only lasted for 20 km. Then we hit the first town in Mongolia that consisted of: 25 gas stations, 15 karaoke places, 2 banks (they don’t exchange money here), several gers, and the most hectic/loud people on this planet.

After we stocked up on beers, chips, chocolate, and water (in order of importance), we continued to the next town. On roads that finally explain why the organizer of the rally explained: “About 90% of what decides whether your little joy machine makes it is down to how crap you are at driving. Fast speeds and big rocks mix really badly. About a quarter of you won’t make it through.” Here, a horse seems to be the superior mean of transportation.

On the other hand: the Western part of Mongolia (no desert yet) is about the most beautiful piece of earth we have ever seen. On a plateau about 2,500 meters above sea level (therefore not a single tree), the landscape constantly changes from rocky mountains to smooth hills, from huge deep-blue lakes to endless meadows in all shades of green. For hours, there is not a single living soul around. Without Sascha’s reckless driving (and the fact that we’re five guys unshowered for 3 days), this might well be the most romantic spot on this planet…

We finally got to the city of Khovd after what can only be described as a terrible drive until past midnight (yes, we did break three of the four rules for driving in Mongolia: don’t go fast – don’t drive by night – don’t cross rivers without help). The best hotel in this city has no shower. There is no food. Good night.

* Side note: the third night at the border apparently annoyed other teams so much that they decided to do the following (step-by-step):

- Be hungry and sick of Chinese noodles in styrofoam cups
- Try to steal a goat from a local shepherd
- Get caught doing so
- Buy the goat instead for 120 dollars
- Ask the border people to shoot it – have them refuse
- Get a knife that is not sharp enough to cut the goat’s throat – try it anyways (the goat was not impressed by then)
- Get another knife – still not sharp enough. The goat is bleeding but far from dead
- Get a bread knife and keep “sawing” the goat’s throat till it’s actually dead. All girls scream by then
- Cut out the meat and boil (!!!) it.
- Discover that the goat’s testicles and kidneys are the only parts that taste decent when boiled. And that you overpaid.

Day 32-34: Border issues getting serious

Friends of the Alpenblitz,

Still amazed by the unbelievable quality of the roads in Russia, we quickly made it to Barnaul. There we used the last signs of civilization to stock up on delicious canned food, noodle soup, beer and water. Determined to make it to the Mongolian boarder before Thursday, we then decided to drove on for another 170 kms to the city of Biysk. When we arrived there, everybody was starving – so first thing we did is to look out for a place to eat. After we realized that there are no open restaurants to be found in the city’s ‘old town’ (read even crappier Soviet-style apartment building than in the rest of the really depressing city) we decided to go back to a place we passed when entering the city that looked pretty packed. There we found the most surreal scenery ever experienced even on this trip: garage-lit-with- neon-lamps atmosphere, music (or what Russians consider disco music) loud enough to permanently damage your ears, shit-faced russians in all age categories (however predominantly parents with their children) making the most uncoordinated dance moves ever observed, and some unmotivated waitresses serving food. Another soup and shishlik later it was time to find a place to stay over night. As we were clearly the main attraction there us asking for a hotel quickly resulted in our cars being surrounded by a huge mob of crazily drunk russians trying to enter our cars, talking to us in Russian, kissing and hugging us while loudly arguing about where we should stay. Finally, five of them jumped into a super-old Lada and made sure we found an adequate place to stay that fit into our budget (the suite of Gastiniza Vostock, a place that still looks like in good old Soviet times.

The next day we drove in pouring rain (the first time it rained since we left Europe) towards the Russian/Mongolian boarder. Our good old Alpenbock that bravely endured all the pain of the journey with us got completely soaked with water and started to gradually degrade.

After a 8-hour drive through supposedly very beautiful landscape (we did not see much of it due to all the fog, but what we saw reminded us of the alps at home) we reached an even more depressing town made up of a couple of provisorical houses right next to the boarder where we had to stay over night. Thanks to Matthias Russian capabilities we managed to find a family that agreed to rent out a room to the five of us for a couple of Rubels.

While we were having dinner (of course the usual soup that we ate for the last 50 consequtive meals) two other Mongol Rally teams joined us to stay in our place’s ‘living room’. With medium to severe diarrhea having joined our team as a sixth member (quote of one of our valued team members: “My ass feels like a gas container of a Soda Club machine”), the smell level in this room became quickly so intense that Eugen started penetrating us with a ueber-disgusting room deodorant.

The following day we, and especially our ‘master-machines’, were all ready for the ultimate test, the final boarder crossing into Mongolia. While we could easily mitigate some missing paperwork at the Russian side with some paperwork we had left from the Turkmenistan boarder crossing we were quite surprised to find around 40 other Mongol Rally teams camping right next to the Mongolian post. Apparently some teams have already waited there for three days before their documents got processed by the most inefficient and slowest customs office on this planet. As there was not much more we could do (neither our connections to the major of Ulaanbaatar, nor the nice words from a fellow mba graduate student from Mongolia, nor the suddenly diabetes-suffering imaginary team member who immediately needed a diabetes shot to prevent him from going into shock really impressed the officers), we put up our tent and started to prepare for a night with the temperature approaching zero degrees celsius. While part of the team already got in touch with the famous Mongolian dumplings, the rest enjoyed some delicious ‘Chaeshoernli’ (mac and cheese), shisha and rounds of playing cards.

Eventually half of the team stayed in the border crossing backyard over night in a tent at temperatures around 0 degrees (aka refugree camp). Eugen and Matthias snuck out and slept at a local family’s place for $3.5 per night which included breakfast (goat-tea and bread) and the host’s snoring.

Day 31: Getting closer

After a month of traveling and a ton of impressions that will take months to digest, the dreams are getting weirder. Last night one team member – who shall remain anonymous – dreamt that Alpenblitz would be penalized upon arrival in Mongolia for having cheated along the way. The punishment: Our valued Eugen would be handcuffed by the organizers and publically decorated with a Mongol Rally tattoo on one of his most private parts!! Well, let’s not conduct any Freudian psycho-analysis on this, but conclude that the mind is an untamed animal sometimes.

Anyways, we changed the other two tires on the Berlin-car back to the no-tube summer tires, in anticipation of fairly good roads til dirt-track-Mongolistan. The practice paid off and our time was down to 5 minutes per tire, while the Swiss boys prepared one of their infamous “Zwipfs” (Zwischenverpflegung – an acronym used in the Swiss army to describe any kind of snack). This time on the menu: Pieces of dry sausage nestled in between two crackers, the vitamine balance turning red once again.

At 7:15 we left our subscale hotel. Sascha called it his worst hotel experience so far on the trip, since the terrible bunker in Kyrgystan came at least with a fascinating Soviet experience. Still, the author of this entry believes that not having had to set up the tent during the night was totally worth 10 USD.

Guess where we spent the next 6 hours! Right, on the road. And here’s the thing about Kazakh roads. They are certainly not the motorists’ Dante’s inferno as which other rallyistas have described them. Our brave Suzukis have had much worse tarmac under their rubber in Turkmenistan and Uzbeskistan. However, in Eastern Kazakhstan the roads are pothole-infested, spinebreakingly, pointlessly bumpy. So bumpy in fact, that your bladder turns into a whirlpool. To make matters worse, the driver can see far into the distance and would love to put the hammer down – only to be remainded of his naivity by a set of Hawaiian waves in the asphalt. Central Asian massage. Oh, and then there are the bridges…

But wait, before I go off on a serious rant about Roadistan, let me refocus your view away from the tiny, narrow string of asphalt which we need for our rally. Let’s look left and right, at the stunning Kazakh landscape. It’s obviously wide and empty, Kazakhstan being the 9th largest country. This means it’s still largely unspoilt, smooth, and simply natural. So, if you agree that land is increasingly unaffordable in your neighbourhood, consider Kazakhstan as an option. I am serious, organize a yard sale and purchase a plot of land, preferrably in the vicinity of civilized Almaty, where the sweet party girls suffer from a clothes allergy, and this is what you will get: An unblocked view on grassy plains with rolling hills and high, snow-capped mountains in the far distance, space for your mansion, more space for your private A320 in the backyard (you will need one), space for your own mine a bit behind your backyard (you will want one), and no wild animals apart from a mysteriously suicidal race of foxes (we counted 4 dead ones in one morning). Convinced?

We lunched on meat dumplings, meat rolls with ketchup rice, and borsh soup at Restaurant ‘Asia’, Gault Milleau’s certain choice in Kalbatay. Or not. The vitamin balance turned deeply red, yet again. Day dreams of a light salad with steamed fish, accompanied by a refreshing Beaujolais…

Reality check: We are in rural Kazakhstan and back on the road to Semey. Ten minutes later, Philipp scored a ‘fuckup-point’ for blowing a rear tire on his car. The fascinated locals where watching us while we changed both rear tires in only 11 minutes.

At 5:30pm we arrived in Semey, in Northern Kazakhstan. At the city gate we drove through the strangest cemetary I have ever seen: On both sides of the road were 2 rows of brick graves with the ‘inhabitants” portrait on them. No fence, no wall. Rest in piece!

Next stop, a garage where the worker – let us call him Dimitri – spoke pretty good German. He opened our two blown tires, and voila, turns out that we had the wrong tube size in there. One was a bike tube and the other one was too big. How hard can it be? Anyways, Dimi quickly replaced all the wrong-sized tubes while we had a first beer. Nearby, two couples and their babies were observing all our moves. The contrast could not have been sharper: Their decrepit car, a centuries old Lada, had been kept alive with parts from at least 20 other less fortunate cars, while the girls had invested in their upper body and were dressed up top to toe. Was muss, das muss!

An hour later we checked in at Semey’s nicest hotel, the Nomad, at 70 USD the night. Michel, Philipp, and Matthias went for a short run outside, much to the amusement of the locals. The advantage of Soviet-built neighbourhoods is that while the apartment buildings (the ‘Platte’) are hideous, they also condense the living space needed and leave a lot of room for parks where people like hanging out. The result is a very lively atmosphere in town.

After a good, meaty dinner not much happened anymore. Only our two ‘Master Mashinas’ (Philipp and Eugen) felt like throwing the dice and tasting some Vodka and Whiskey. Will they regret it tomorrow? Stay tuned…

Day 30: Crossroads

We started last night with the first accident of the rally. Fortunately, none of our beautiful Ignis’ was involved – our host’s girlfriend crashed into an old guy’s car, who claimed it was the girl’s fault which it obviously wasn’t. After about 45 minutes, two cops finally showed up (a bunch of police cars drove by the scene already), marked the positions of the cars on the road, asked exactly 2 questions and the drove off…

We then continued our night at a very interesting venue: a club on top of a mountain (3000m!!!) which is a typical Après Ski location in the winter and a restaurant/club in the summer. At the entrance we were handed red / yellow / green wristbands depending on our relationship status. No details will be provided on which colors were chosen by individual team members. Our dinner was a very traditional horse steak (not as exciting as it might sound) and several carafes of vodka. Despite the ridiculous temperatures we were entertained by three dancers in bikinis, dozens of gorgeous girls, and a lot of 5’2″ Kazak gangsters. As Matthias mentioned: “Asians with baseball hats and basketball jerseys just lack any street credibility”.

Matthias and Philipp then decided it was a good idea to continue the party at Copacabana with a bunch of locals and ended up eating chicken wings for breakfeast at 7 am. It turned out it wasn’t a good idea at all.

After a solid two hours of sleep, we got the engines started and began the stage to Alaköl, a small town by a lake north of Almaty. After hours through an interesting but rather “deserty” landscape, Matthias scored his first fuckup-point: he blew the front left tire (although he claims it wasn’t his fault but there’s really no one else to blame it on).

We continued driving on somewhat decent roads to the next thing that we considered a city but was actually a crossroads. We paid 10 dollars per person in rooms that make refugee camp look comfortable. Of course, there was no shower, no matresses (only a sheet covering a wooden board), and generally no hygiene. We had dinner (dumplings, of course) at the local saloon (more flashing lights than a Las Vegas casino) before we happily went to sleep

Day 28-29: Almaty – 12’606 km

Dear friends,

we finally got a good night’s sleep at our very generous host Indira in Bishkek. She lives in an old Soviet building (“Kirgiz Platte”) however her apartment was amazing: completely refurbished and definitely the best place we have stayed in since Iran. We had breakfast at completely overpriced “Navigator” café where we were “robbed” of our last local money. We then continued our way towards the Kazakh border and again successfully implemented our manual “How to deal with Entrepreneurs in Government Functions – Traffic Police” twice, “sadly” enough we never went beyond advice 1 “continue despite being waved at by police”

We then arrived at the border where the so called “Grenz-Fick” started: the Kirgiz side was relatively easy. We received our stamps and were waved through within 30 minutes. The pain started on the Kazakh side: first “Master Machine” (i.e. Eugen and Philipp) and passengers were divided. All locals were driven into a cage like cattle (the situation reminded of Friday nights in NYC meatpacking district when hordes of party-goers try to push into clubs). Luckily Michel, Matthias and Sascha got preferential treatment and were directly led to the VIP entrance (i.e. the front of the cage) and passed through security checks smoothly.

The Master Machines were not as lucky. First Philipp and Eugen had to fight against a group of 20 locals and Russians to get a desired stamp confirming that the car entered the country (stamp 1). We then had to continue to customs where the entire car was searched. We had to empty the entire car (Philipp: “Are you f*** kidding me?!”) They then asked whether we had crack or coke. After the fifth time Eugen answered with “Knowing, da! Having coke on us, niet!”. The situation reached its’ pinnacle when the officers suspected coke in Philipp’s childhood teddy-bear. “If they cut it open, something very bad is going to happen”. Luckily we could convince that the bear was indeed only a stuffed animal. Search completed (stamps 2 & 3 from two independent customs officers). Stamp 4 at immigration (passenger check). Stamp 5 & 6 at car immigration check. Stamp 7 for final checkout.
Summary: Total time wasted 2:55hrs, yield 7 stamps (0.04 stamps / minute). [Benchmark: Turkmenistan: time wasted 6:30hrs, yield 17 stamps (0,044 stamps / minute)]

As we continued our way to Almaty we had an interesting addition to our manual “How to deal with Entrepreneurs in Government Functions – Traffic Police”: In Kazakhstan they seem to have professional tripod speed cameras (impossible to see in advance) and a police check about 200m thereafter. Our take:

- If possible follow a local who will point out the position of speed cameras to you by breaking suddenly without apparent reason
- If caught speeding do NOT stop at the following police check, continue with reasonable speed (our recommendation 60km/h as this too fast for the police to react but at the same time slow enough not to break your axle)

We had dinner / late lunch right on the main avenue in Almaty: the city had a very international vibe and it was much easier to navigate as an English speaker. Our host Adil picked us up and brought us to our apartment which turned out to be a luxurious castle with Jacuzzi.

We started our night off at Soho Club Almaty, then went to a Russian student bar (Kazakh Parlour style) and ended up at a Berlin-like underground bar. Michel and Eugen took a taxi back telling the driver beforehand that they only had $6. The driver first agreed but then suddenly stopped and claimed $20. We then haggled for 10mins and then flagged a passing police car. Big mistake! The taxi driver left immediately. We were then confronted with “narcotics” accusations and prompted to come to the police station (the police was obviously trying to get a bribe). Michel crossed his hands (sakrit-style), yelled “finished” and walked off. Eugen was first slightly confused (and intimidated by the Uzis the police was carrying) but then decided to follow Michel. The police luckily decided to drive off and we soon found out that we were in fact only two blocks away from our apartment.

After a proper hangover breakfast, Sascha and Michel went off to get the cars prepared for the challenges ahead. First, they stopped by a Subaru garage (trusted for their off-road/rally competencies) to get the cars checked out. After two hours, we got the confirmation, that our Suzukis still have a fair chance to make it to Mongolia. From there we moved to a small shop where we had tubes installed in our tires to prevent them from blowing while driving over the crappy streets and desert tracks. While the work was done we relaxed in a cozy shisha place and got to know our Kazakh friends better. Also, we learned about the latest technological innovation in the shisha business: The Medusa – a shisha that does not only look super futuristic but works without tobacco and might therefore be almost healthy.

At night we were invited to a mountain nightclub about 30min from Almaty on 3’000m. On the way Michel and Sascha were involved in the first accident on the trip, luckily not as drivers but as passengers. Our host’s girlfriend hit another car (SUV vs. SUV) and completely smashed the other driver’s door. The club itself was epic but it was terribly cold (~8°C). While the two drivers went to bed at 3:00AM, both Matthias and Philipp did not get back until 6:30AM.
Also we thought we had to share some intriguing Kazakh scam ideas (source: The Lonely Planet) with you:

- “Wallet-Full-of-Dollars” scam: Someone finds a wallet on the ground as you pass, opens it and finds hundreds of dollars inside. They draw your attention and if you stop, offer to share the loot with you. As you starting getting involved another person arrives, claiming that it’s his wallet and that there had been much more money inside originally. They demand compensation and threaten to take you to the police unless you make a payment.
- Another way is that someone pretends to have lost their wallet and demands to check your pockets. If you allow them to check your pockets / bag (note: that would be just utterly stupid) they will be provided with a great opportunity to snatch your belongings.
- There have also been reports from drivers picking you up at the airport and drop you in the middle of nowhere. They will threaten to strand you there and only continue driving in return for a big cash payment
- Also be wary of accepting invitations to stay with strangers. One traveller’s “host” demanded a large amount of money to let her leave with her luggage
- Try to avoid police, who are often only interested in foreigners as possible sources of bribes for minor “infringements” (note: no real change to other central Asian countries – see our manual for advice)

More Stories