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Beastly Blog
Friday, 18 February 2005
Elephantitis in China!
Nee How! The past weeks have been another flurry of TV interviews, visits to tea houses, laying in bed recovering from heavy drinking sessions, nationality parks, cheap shopping, driving on more of China?s glorious rough roads with unbelievable scenery streaming past and passing tea plantations. A big thank you to our friends of Nelly for telling us that the accelerator cable is not just a Beast problem ? theirs snapped on their epic trip through Africa ? just before getting on a boat in Sudan. Have a look at their webpage - a href="">.

Kunming ? Simao ? Jinghong ? Xishuangbanna Elephant Reserve - Mengla ? Boten ? LAOS!

8th February 2005 ? 18th February 2005

From the fall of Burma to the Japanese in 1942 until the end of the second world war, the Allies strove to keep China supplied with material from India-by air over "the Hump," (the Himalayas) and overland via the Burma Road, which stretched 700 miles to the Chinese city of Kunming. As the Imperial Japanese Army swept across China and South Asia at the war's outset, closing all of China's seaports-more than 200,000 Chinese labourers embarked on a seemingly impossible task: to cut a seven-hundred-mile overland route from the southwest Chinese city of Kunming in China to Lashio in Burma - the Burma Road. With the fall of Burma in early 1942, the Burma Road was severed and it became the task of the newly arrived American General Stilwell to re-open it, while, at the same time, keeping China supplied by air-lift from India and simultaneously driving the Japanese out of Burma as the first step of the Allied offensive toward Japan. The Hump bar pays homage to the Flying Tigers, the Allied forces that battled over the Hump to supply China with arms. Michael Palin visited here during the filming of Himalayas .

Kunming was also the location of the Adriano?s new found fame! Adriano arranged to work with Save the Children to raise awareness for their fantastic work. Save the Children in China are not a registered charity yet so they work closely with local charities to help local kids. They had arranged a meeting with dinner to discuss what Adriano wanted to do. Adriano?s idea was to get the local street kids to paint the Beast for the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). He went to the People?s Square with the Beast and was inundated with kids who painted a beautiful big dragon and the map of China down the side of the Beast. A lot of fun was had by everyone involved and by the media. Adriano had invited China Daily as well as three local newspapers, a children?s programme from Yunnan TV, CCTV9 and the local television station.

The rest of our time in Kunming consisted of surfing the cheap DVD shops (6 Yuan for a new Oscar nominated film ? 30 pence), looking for cheap electrical goods, wondering the cosmopolitan city which is interwoven with the poverty and charm of old Kunming.

The drive from Kunming to Simao was 550km on fairly uneventful ?Super? highway but we worryingly watched the oil pressure drop from a normal 30lb/sq inch to 20 and alarmingly dropping to 10 with no indication of change in water or oil temperature. Now we may seem a little stupid but we had supposedly had an oil and oil filter change in Chelyabinsk and we were getting quite worried about the drop. Alexis?s dad stated that the drop in pressure might have been due to the change and that a thicker oil may be a better idea. We stopped for lunch and after a closer inspection of the oil filter we discovered that it was indeed the oil filter that we put on in the UK before we left. So laying down in the dust with chickens, pigs and small children running around, we changed the oil filter and the oil pressure returned to normal! Phew!

The drive south took us through little terracotta tile covered villages surrounded by mountains of beautifully manicured tea plantations. As we stare out over the windy roads, weaving through the countryside we see banana trees, papayas, rubber trees and paddy fields. As we entered southern Yunnan, we hit China?s tea plantation area. There were mountains shrouded in neat lines of tea trees that stretched as far as the eye could see.
There are about 250 wild Asian Elephants in China which cross over from Laos and Myanmar. More than 80 percent of China's wild Asian elephants can be found in the Xishuangbanna National Natural Reserve. Founded in 1987, the reserve includes five protected zones and covers a total area of 247,439 hectares. It is a stunning area with deciduous rainforest covering every inch. Besides Asian elephants, 20,200 people also live in 114 villages within the jurisdiction of the reserve. Another 144 villages are situated around the reserve grounds, home to more than 32,000 residents so there is the usual human pressure on these beautiful animals.

We wanted to stay in the reserve?s tree houses where there was a higher chance of seeing the elephants as they over looked the watering hole but they were all booked. So we opted to stay in the normal cabins with a dwindled hope of seeing them. We watched the show of the local population (the Jihuo people) performing their native dances. The Jihuo people only had first contact with the rest of China in the 1950s as they lived in remote slash and burn villages. After that we had some dinner and retired to our balcony to have some beers and slap some mosquitoes whilst looking over the reserve. We listened to the chirping and creaking surrounding us and were surprised when a security guard came to our cabin with a torch and started shining it behind us. We were over the moon when we realised that he was trying to deter an Asian Elephant from coming down to see us. With the knowledge that in the past few years, nine people have died and 49 have been injured by Asian elephants in the area, we stepped back and watched with admiration. This 8ft high beautiful Elephant stared back and patrolled up and down trying to escape the torch being shined into his eye by the security guard. He stayed for about 10 minutes before wandering off to go and munch on some bamboo further into the forest. We were so privileged as they don?t often go to that part of the reserve!
The following day we travelled up in the cable car to the top of the reserve passing over prisitine forest (except the compulsory plastic bottle and plastic bags dropped from above). Paths took us through the forest full of croaking frogs and chirping crickets. We completed our tour of the forest with an Elephant Show which we walked straight past with disgust but the other tourists were lining up to see. We travelled down from the reserve to Jinghong and we waited in Mengla sadly waiting to cross into Laos and away from China. It has been an extraordinary month passing through some of the most extreme terrain (and roads!), seeing the most amazing scenery, travelling almost 6000km and meeting some of the friendliest people on the planet. We liked China! We are now in Laos.. more details to follow!

External temperatures are hitting 30oC. The escape hatch on the Beast is off to stop the temperature creeping too much above 40oC. The shorts are on. The malaria tablets are being taken. It is a hard life travelling!

Chinese Notes:

- Chinese people are very social. All food is served for everyone to share and placed in the middle of the table. Card and Mahjong games are played at the side of the street. Promenading is very popular with people walk down the street together until late at night.
- There are very few fat Chinese. Their diet is very healthy with a lot of vegetables included in with meat and rice. There is relatively little MSG in the food in comparison to British Chinese food.
- The Chinese are an untidy race and will peel sunflower seeds and drop them on the floor in restaurants, they will clear their throats and spit on carpets in hotel rooms, there is litter all the way along the side of roads and they have no qualms about leaving rubbish on the floor in a national park or world heritage site.
- Chinese roads are atrocious. At present the government is investing millions of yuan in replacing roads so there are thousands of miles of unfinished roads. In the 1970s there were only 7000 miles of paved roads, so we are quite privileged to have driven across China for almost 6000 km with about 80% of the roads paved!
- Historically, if a Chinese lady farted in public she would commit suicide due to the embarrassment brought on her and her family.
- The staring has got worse the further down the country we have come even though there are more foreigners in the south. Once or twice we have walked down the road and the whole family has run out to the street to stand and gawp open mouthed at us!

Posted by Alexis at 12:01 AM GMT
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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Chasing the Chinese Dream
Throw away the three pairs of long johns that have been adorning our legs for the past 3 months, get out the dumplings, hand out your red packets, hang up your lanterns?. HAPPY NEW YEAR! Third time lucky? the European New Year, Russian old new year and now the Chinese New Year. We have finally arrived in the Spring City ? Kunming, in time for the Spring Festival! It is the first time in 3 months that we have seen temperatures over +10oC and we are presently enjoying day time temperatures of +25oC and evening temperatures dropping to +18oC. It is a hard life walking around in shorts and t-shirts!! Anyway back to our adventure?

Lanzhou ? Tianshui - Hanzhong ? Chengdu - Leshan ? Emei - Mount Emei ? Zigong - Xiu Xong - Kunming

27th January ? 8th February 2005

Our interview with Ganzhou television and Lanzhou television went very well with us pushing our charities and raising awareness within China ? Save the Children and IFAW have a presence here but we also helped to raise awareness for the Land Mine Association. Greg had had a heavy night the previous night and so didn?t want to show his white pale hungover face to the 150 million people! From Lanzhou we drove to Tianshui with a little three hour stop off for a land slide that had blocked the main road. We had to wait for two hours before they blew it up with dynamite. Due to the landslide we had to travel in the dark ? always a bad idea ? especially in China where everyone drives without headlights or headlights on high beam! We travelled up into a mountain range in the dark and we were warned of snow and ice lining the road. We were stopped by enterprising business men on motorbikes insisting that we rent their snow chains?it was definitely too dangerous for us to drive down! We ignored them? we had driven across Russia, Kazakhstan and most of China without them. Just to be on the safe side though Tom and Adrian ran in front of the Beast for 5km on the downhill stretch to ensure that we drove the part of the road with the most grip on the sheet ice. No problems and no sliding! Jimmy, our guide, sat in the back terrified!

From Tianshui we passed through quiet villages and horrendous potholed gravel roads with chickens, dogs, pigs and children flying past. Around lunch time we passed through a village that had their weekly market on so we decided to stop for some lunch. We parked the Beast at the far end of the main street and wandered off for some food. Adrian was enveloped by a crowd of small children when he bought his food and on our return to the Beast there were more than 50 people standing around the Beast asking questions and practising their English. It is strange to think that in some of these villages we are the first white, non Chinese people that some of these people have ever met. We pushed on to Hanzhong passing through more small poverty stricken villages with maize and chillis hanging from doorways to dry for the more desperate periods of winter.

We arrived in Chengdu in the Sichuan region and wanted to head straight for the nearest Irish Bar ? the Shamrock on the advice of 3 Irish men whose diary of the same route we have been following as our bible for roads and sights ? but we were slightly hindered by not having a hotel booked and no hotel that we tried accepting foreigners (there are tourist hotels in China that have to be registered before they will accept foreigners). We eventually reached the pub and met the owner, a mad Spanish manager, a few ex pat teachers and a Dolly Parton look a like that ran a brothel. We dragged ourselves home at 5am after a visit to the night market (every Chinese town as a night market ? a food haven where you can buy noodles and shish kebabs at any time of the morning). We paid a visit to Chairman Mao who watches over People?s Square with almost a nazi salute and enjoyed a rickshaw ride around the square with Adrian attempting to take control of the bike and failing ? those rickshaw riders have strong legs.

Chengdu is most famous in the animal world for the Panda Research Centre which is located outside of the town and is dedicated to the research and saving the species from extinction. We got to see the ancient but rare Giant Panda (fossils shown to have dated back to dinosaur times) and the rare Red Panda having a light Bamboo lunch; a privilege when there is only 1000 left in the wild. The pandas are hindered in their breeding success rate through the male having a penis too small for the female!

Leshan is home to the Grand Buddha ? he sits looking over the Min River, hidden from view unless you walk to see him or get on a boat as we did. The Grand Buddha is 71m high and is now the largest stone Buddha in the world as the Afghani Buddhas were blown up in the 1990s by the Taliban. Construction was started in 713AD and he took 90 years to complete, his ears are 7m long and you can picnic on his big toe ? it is 8.5m long!!

Leaving the Grand Buddha we decided that we should stay in Emei, 40km to the west. We drove around the town looking for somewhere to stay and spotted a sign for a hotel with hot springs? we indulged in some food in the 5 star resort (a meagre #15 a night each) and relishing the positive air temperatures before plummeting into the yellow sulphurous pools of hot spring water pumped from 8km away and enjoying a few too many beers. It was in at the Emei Hot Spring resort that Alexis received an email from LRM ? Land Rover Monthly requesting an interview about the Beast and our adventure? so get your copy for May booked now!

From the Emei resort we took a two hour bus up into the rugged UNESCO protected Emei Mountain range, passing through mist drenched quartz, karst limestone and granite geological formations to a point where a guard blocked the road and insisted that the bus put on his snow chains. We climbed up to a height of 2500m. Daylight was closing in on us when we got to the base of the cable car station and the temperature had dropped to a numbing -3oC. Our sole intention of going up into the mountains was to stay in one of the monasteries that line the path to the top of the mountain. When we got off the bus we were inundated by people who said that the temple that we intended to go to was too dangerous and we would have to stay at the anonymous hotel next to the bus stop. We had met an English teacher from Beijing who was travelling around China with his Chinese friend, both called David and they were both intent on joining us on our adventure 7.5km down the hill to the Elephant?s Pool Monastery. Jimmy got very scared for our safety when the hotel manager insisted that we would die if we followed the clearly marked path down the hill and started pulling us all to the hotel. With the backing of David and David we set off down the hill, only after we had been forced to buy crampons that tie on to your shoes with string. It was truly an adventure as we walked past snow encrusted trees with ice frozen onto twigs and wind chill icicles frozen onto the ice. We felt quite safe as we had enlisted a guide, we had crampons and David (English) was a mountaineering cameraman. Jimmy however was still not sure and lead the way fumbling in the darkness until he slipped down several steps vanishing into the blackness when his crampons came off.

The icy walk down the hill was worth it when we arrived at the monastery to be confronted by the laughing fat Buddha and some monks dressed in grey. After a delicious meal consisting of bamboo shoots, the spongy gelatinous bamboo centre and bamboo slices we headed to bed. It wasn?t the most of luxurious of places to sleep with external temperatures being the same as the internal temperatures, -5oC and the most comfortable of way to sleep was with your hat completely covering your face. The electric blanket gave some respite but not a huge amount. Breakfast the following day showed the surrounding scenery ? wow? we were sitting in the clouds with icy pinnacles of limestone poking up through the mist. The local monkeys come to ascertain if there is anyone to rob of their food. We trudged our weary legs back up the hill to get to the top where we were told by other people coming down that we had a chance to see the top ? the first time in 4 months. We walked up to the cable car and stood admiring the scenery below; a sea of clouds with mountain ranges poking up.

We got back on the road stopping at Zigong and Xiu Xong. With the impending Six nations games (rugby) it was considered necessary that we get to Kunming in time for the 1am kick off. So we left Xiu Xong at 6am anticipating arriving in Kunming for at the latest 10pm. After voyaging up into misty mountains, down into river valleys, through dangerous bends with heavy lorries on the wrong side of the road, over gravel potholed roads and down beautiful straight motorways with no street lighting with the contra flow traffic on your side of the carriageway travelling at 80mph towards you, we arrived in Kunming. We had travelled a distance of 880km over 22 hours and still missed the England ? Wales match!

All the time that we are driving we have been keeping a worrying eye on our fuel and the lack of lead additive that we have. Since Europe, those we have asked have been unsure as to which fuel is leaded or unleaded which is not very useful when your engine pinks and will eventually start knocking and lead to complete engine failure without lead in the petrol. Alexis?s dad came to the rescue again! He made enquiries as to sending some additive to China. With the bad experiences of Russia and Kazakhstan, sending it by DHL seemed the only way to get it through. They refused to even think about it due to the hazardous content but eventually came up with a price, to send 4 bottles, to China of #360!! Alexis?s dad sent them by Royal Mail snail mail to Kunming for #17 and they arrived in one piece 15 days later, enabling us to complete our journey at least to Australia!

As we have been travelling so much we have been avoiding stopping for food to save on daylight hours. All of us have lost weight with Alexis losing almost a stone, Greg almost 2 stone, Tom a stone and Adrian seems to stay the same as he eats for lost time!

Since we arrived in Kunming we have been indulging in the festivities of the Spring Festival watching the fireworks and firecrackers fly up into the sky. I will leave you with some information about Chinese New Year, before we head off to the south to the Chinese Asian Elephant Reserve and into Laos.

Chinese New Year traditions

Chinese New Year is the lunar end to the year and the start of a new one and is the time that families to get together so there are many people that travel around the country during the 9 day holiday. There are some traditions that are celebrated and practised by the Chinese:
- The Chinese zodiac system consists of twelve years with each year having a different animal each year: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake horse, monkey, sheep, dog, rooster and pig. The strongest animal is the dragon and then the tiger with the snake as another strong animal (a small dragon!). The sheep and the pig are the weaker of the animals. This year is the year of the rooster (or cock!).
- Couplets are written and placed at either side of your front door.
- New clothes and hats are worn during the spring festival
- Dumplings are eaten at 12. The dumplings symbolise money and are a good sign for making money in the new year.
- Fireworks and firecrackers are often used as part of the celebrations.
- Red hair bands are worn
- Setting off firecrackers at 12 well in fact whenever anyone is awake.
- Cash gifts are given in little red packets
- In ancient times no one could make food for the 10 day period so a lot of food would have to be prepared before.
- It is popular to get married during the Spring Festival period.

A little note for our Chinese friends, there is a slight censorship of our webpage access here in China ? we have had no problems in other countries. Apologies ? your photos are on there, if you want copies of them we can email them to you.

Posted by Alexis at 12:01 AM GMT
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Thursday, 27 January 2005
China or bust
Jinghe (China) ? Urumqi ? Turpan ? Hami ? Dunhuang - Jiayuguan ? Zhangye ? Wuwei ? Lanzhou

15th January ? 27th January 2005

We drove into China along the old Silk Road and climbed up through the valley of flowers past honey and pollen sellers through the Bhorohoro Shan mountains and past a lake high up on the plateau. We stopped in Jinghe in one of the best 2 star hotels we have ever stayed in. For a measly 110 Yuan (#6.50) you get a room for two with TV, kettle, toothbrush, comb, shampoo and breakfast. Dinner was even cheaper at 60 Yuan for 5 of us - #3!

We chugged our way on to Urumqi (pronounced Oo-rum-chi), the Xinjiang state capital. Historically the region of Xinjiang was part of East Turkestan and so has a very diverse culture with Urygur (muslims), Han (Chinese) and Hun populating the area. Public posters are written in Urygur and Chinese. We went out to indulge in a light dinner and after asking what their specials were we were told ?the shrimp is good as is the dog??

Steven (Jimmy?s colleague) and Jimmy showed us the highlife of Urumqi. We dined in one of the finest restaurants in Urumqi, played electronic Mah Jong and watched one of the best bands in the province. We visited the city museum full of dessicated corpses from the ancient cities on the Silk Road, the Uygur market with the Chinese medicine stalls, carpet shops as well as Samari sword sellers. We were also treated to some Chinese Karaoke from Jimmy and some bad English Karaoke from Tom, Greg, Adriano and Alexis!

Tom and Alexis went to see the pagoda perched on the top of the hill overlooking the town. The park had beautiful ice sculptures and all the Chinese lantern decorations were up for the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year. The trees had been decorated with tissue paper stuck onto the trees. Leading up to the pagoda there was a chain with hundreds of padlocks attached to it. Apparently couples and newly weds go to the top to attach the padlock in order to declare their undying love for each other.

From Urumqi we headed over a huge sandy orange mountain range to Turpan (Turr-pan) where the fluorescent green raisins are grown and dried in strange brick buildings. The ground temperature in the region has reached 83oC and air temperature 45oC. They receive about 19mm of rain every year? a really dry arid area. Just outside of Turpan is the ancient city of Jiague. This is a city that dates back 2,500 years and is constructed entirely out of the mudstone. There are houses, offices, temples and guard posts carved into the crumbling geology. It is a UNESCO site and there are signs all over the place to stop people littering and graffiting as well to stop doing the Chinese national pastime of spitting ? when you only have 19mm of rain per year a glob of spit can make a big difference to the rate of deterioration!

From Turpan we travelled to Hami (Ham ee) stopping off at the Kumtag desert to look at the beautiful sand dunes coated in a fine sprinkling of snow. The desert park has some amazing sand castles of famous musicians, historical sites and politicians.

From Hami we travelled to Dunhuang (Done-Hwang), famous for its dunes and the thousand Buddha caves. The dunes tower above the city and are slowly edging towards the town. There is supposed to a special singing from the dunes if you throw yourself down the hill, so Adrian and Tom has to try it but ended up looking more like stranded beetles than dune surfers with music emanating from the dunes. Dunhuang is most famous for the Thousand Buddha Caves () situated 15km outside of the town. There are nearly 500 caves all carved from the cliff face, each with their own different style featuring hundreds of Buddhas across the walls and dating from over 2,500 years ago. There is a giant Buddha towering over 5 storeys high encased in a beautiful pagoda at the site. Many of the artefacts including the stone and wooden Buddhas as well as paper documents dating back thousands of years were stolen and taken to the British Museum in the early 1900s. To be fair, this thievery has saved many of the very important documents of China?s history from being destroyed during the cultural revolution (instigated by Mao Zhadong to remove all cultural and religious icons from China) although we feel that they should maybe be returned to their original home.

From Dunhuang we voyaged along the bumpy, unfinished, with mud mounds blocking the road to stop you going on or into the drainage channels ?Super? highway to Jiayuguan (Ji you gwan) where the western end of the Great Wall starts. The wall was started in the Ming Dynasty to prevent the invasion of the infamous Genghis Khan from the north who created tyranny within the region for many years. The wall stretches from Jiayuguan to Beijing and was a mammoth task. The Chinese constructing the wall calculated the number of bricks needed to construct it. On completion of the wall at Jiayuguan there was one brick left which sits on a wall out of reach.

From Jiayuguan we passed through Zhangye (Zhan gyee) and Wuwei (Woo-wee) before reaching Lanzhou (Lan-zyou). The two thousand kilometres that we have travelled so far have been fairly uneventful with just one new squeak developing from somewhere that we can?t determine and realising that we are running out of lead replacement additive (next time we do anything like this we are taking a diesel, unleaded or LPG vehicle and not believing anyone about the availability of leaded petrol ? no one seems to know what is leaded and what isn?t!).

Just before a visit to carry out a health check on our monster at one of He Liang?s friends garage, our accelerator cable that we had mended in Kazakhstan, snapped again. Easily mended at the garage but getting there was the fun bit, with Adrian clutching at the cable with a pair of pliers to accelerate and Alexis negotiating through the treacherous Lanzhou roads to get to the garage. He Liang was a fantastic translator helping to explain all our needs and worries about our giant red baby! To say thank you to our garage mechanic friend we went to his friend?s restaurant. A fascinating place as it was also used on a monthly basis as an auction room for the sale of antiques, many of which adorned the walls. There were pots on shelves that were over 5,000 years old and pictures hung up for anyone to touch that were over #100,000. From there we went to a Tibetan bar where we were dragged into some Tibetan dancing and sat to recover with a glass of Yak milk.

As we speak we are just off to have an interview with the Lanzhou television crew which will only be transmitted to 5 million people, but tomorrow we have another television interview with the Ganshou Provicial Television crew who will transmit to more than the population of the UK? a cool 100 million people. We are superstars!!

Everywhere we have stopped, there has instantly been a crowd of interested smiling men clambering to look inside the Beast, all with intense stares at these strange foreigners invading their country. They all disperse quickly after one of them decides to test the strength of the tyres by kicking them and then setting off the alarm. People stop and stare in the street and cars overtake, stop and wait for us to pass to have a good look. We will have to get used to it as we have another 3,000 km to travel through China before reaching the Laos border. We could truly be considered a freak show here!


Chinese vehicles are special. They come in all shapes and sizes usually overladen with whatever product they are carrying. There are cyclists everywhere along with three wheeled motorbike pickups and taxis, motorbikes, pedestrians, tractors, lorries, horse drawn carts, people drawn carts and cars driving the wrong way down the road. You also have to avoid the shepherds herding their sheep and cattle along the road.

- China is developing trade links with the rest of the world at a very fast rate and has an economy that along with India is classified as the fastest growing in the world.

- China has no copyright laws so there are a lot of fake products for sale including cameras, antiques, cigarettes, even cars!

Posted by Alexis at 12:01 AM GMT
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Thursday, 6 January 2005
26th December 2004 ? 6th January 2005

We are still in Almaty the city of apples, Kazakhstan. Our flat has a beautiful view of the panorama of snow capped mountains surrounding Almaty and we are enjoying positive temperatures. We spent the stroke of 12 at New Year with a group of ex pats in Mad Murphy?s and Tom spent it at Republika Square where there was a massive firework display. After that we all went off our own separate ways with Tom paying a visit to a night club somewhere in the city and paying $50 for the privilege! After an alcoholic Christmas and New Year perusing the local British and Irish Bars, making some geological and oil friends and just relaxing, we are heading up into the mountains to do a spot of snowboarding in Kazakhstan?s only ski resort, Chimbulak. After that we return to the land of travel and the travelogues may be quite extensive as we head the 4000km across China from the 15th January towards Laos. After that we heading down into Thailand and we will see if we can help with the recovery process after the dreadful tsunami.

Greg and Alexis are still recovering from the bad cold and cough that we had over Christmas as well as the mild case of frostbite that we have in our toes. We have had frostbite since Suzdal in Russia when our heater broke. It makes your skin waxy yellow in colour and really sensitive to the touch, feeling like pins and needles. Unfortunately there isn?t much on the net as to what you should do with affected parts except for put in warm water?So if any of you have any ideas as to what we should do with our toes ? besides amputate them ? we would appreciate some medical advice! Greg got quite badly affected with his feet becoming wet and crinkled and loss of sensation at the end of his toes. We are hoping that nerve endings grow back!!! This webpage gives you an insight into our pain!

Russia and Kazakhstan both celebrate Christmas on the 6/7th January unlike us Europe. So the Christmas decorations have only just started going up. Kazakhstan still celebrates the old Soviet New Year as well which is on 13th January. The Kazaks also associate with the Chinese New Year and 2005 is the year of the Rooster. We have been given chickens in baskets as presents for a good year and all the shops are stocked with little chickens. On a good luck card, one friend intensively looked through the dictionary to write down a little note... ?I hope that 2005 brings you good cock?? We can all hope for that!

Happy New Year and I hope that 2005 brings you all that you desire as well as a good cock/rooster!!

Posted by Alexis at 2:03 PM GMT
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Skiing or a Chinese Visa???
Frostbite: Keep your feet warm and bring them back to normal temperature as slowly as possible. Do not put them directly into warm or hot water as you will cause a change in the metabolic rate of the tissues and have a surplus of toxins in the area which will accumulate due to poor blood supply. In old or 'at risk people' this can cause ulcers that don?t heal. Make sure you wear a lot of layers over areas that are likely to suffer from frost bite. It is important to check your feet and hands (or any extremity!!!!) for little black dots, like full stops with a biro, as these could be vasculitic infarcts (people who have raynauds suffer from these). They are areas where the cold has caused constriction of the small blood vessels and the tissue has died; if you see these, keep a close eye on them and go and see a doctor if no improvement. Obviously if the whole digit goes black or purply blue, very painful and ice cold then urgently see a doctor ? that is a possible case of gangrene or the need for amputation. The numbness that we are suffering from is temporary, but beware that if the sensation of pain has gone check your feet really carefully and don?t over tighten your boots or drop anything on your feet as it can cause damage that you won?t notice until it is too late.

Thank you to also for the compliments that we have received on brightening up your exhilarating days in the office, they are very much appreciated! I am glad that we can be of service with our worldy antics!

Please keep your emails coming as to what is going on in your part of the world? we love hearing about what you are up to and it is a great connection with home that we don?t always get with our snatched expensive phone calls.

6th January ? 15th January 2005

Almaty - Chymbulak - Almaty? Zharkent ? Horgas Pass (Kazakhstan)

We spent a few days in the mountains above Almaty where Tom and Adrian went snowboarding. We were fairly limited as we were 40km from Almaty, had a small amount of cash between us all and the ski resort only had a currency exchange and no cash point! Who has heard of a ski resort, just as expensive as any in Europe, not having a cash point!! The ski resort of Chymbulak is the only snow resort in Kazakhstan, located at 2650m and is incredibly beautiful with views (if ever clear) over the Medeu ice rink (the largest in Central Asia) and Almaty. Whilst in the mountains the electrics on the Beast went and we had the joy of driving down the mountain with no brake lights, head lights, indicators, horn or alarm! Yelena our Kazak friend recommended a local garage mechanic who worked wonders and sorted our lights, alarm and the more essential element of radio which had blown in Chelyabinsk in Russia. So a newly prepared vehicle we are ready for China.

In order to drive your private foreign vehicle into China you must have an escort in the form of a Chinaman who organises your visas, your car paperwork, your Chinese driving license, your insurance for your journey across the country and your new car number plates as well as planning your router and following you everywhere. Our Chinaman is He Liang (or Jimmy his British pseudonym) who runs the service (have a look at the section for self drive and his geology trip). This process takes three months from start to finish and He Liang has had to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get us in. It isn?t that easy to get a large red travelling brick through most countries but he managed to get it all sorted for us. It costs a fair whack to get into China by car as well so if you are contemplating driving then plan your budget well.

We received our date for China on the 5th January confirming that we could cross over the border on the 15th January 2005, due to the borders being closed for the Chinese New Year between the 10th and 15th February. After trying to work out our departure date from Almaty we decided to confirm with our Chinese agents, He Liang and Steven as to how we cross over the military zones of Kazakhstan and China to get to the border to meet him. ?You show them your passport with your visa in? was the reply. ?But you have sorted out our visas. How are we going to get them from you?? ?errrr no? you will have to sort that out!??. We couldn?t have done anything until we got the confirmation of dates so an emergency visit to the Chinese Embassy was in order! Chinese visas obtained from a very friendly and speedy Chinese Embassy and we were on our way off to China.

We travelled up to the border town of Zharkent the day before our crossing just to make sure that the Beast was behaving. We stopped off for a few sashliks and celebratory drinks and then crawled back to our cockroach hotel (a bargain at #3 for 2 rooms).

Horgas Pass (Kazakhstan into China)

Then the dreaded border crossing. Border crossings are very stressful as you don?t know whether the border guards will let you across, what documents you need to obtain, how long the process will take and whether unbeknownst to you you have had something planted on your vehicle and are about to be hauled off to prison. We had been warned that we would need to take everything out of the car and put it through an x ray machine? not an easy task! We had spent the previous day taking everything out of the Beast and repacking so we knew what was in there; all the documents He Liang had and we had had nothing planted on us. We didn?t even have to unpack anything to put through the x ray machine.

We arrived at one military checkpoint that took over an hour just to get through the gates after jostling with buses just to crawl through to another checkpoint. A slight paranoia on the part of the Kazaks. We got to the Kazak border crossing and we were separated off. Alexis got the dubious joy of the Kazak border guards and the crowd that slowly started to assemble around the Beast as she was bombarded by questions about where we had been, what we were doing with a cursory question from the border guard about whether our 40litre water cans contained vodka!!! After 3 hours we crossed the Chinese border and went forward 2 hours and managed to get hundreds of smiles from the border guards and again collected a small crowd of inquisitive watchers. We had to wait 2 ? hours for the border guards to have lunch before, after a 6 hour border crossing, we were stamped into China and on our way.

Notes of Interest:
Kazakhstan has a huge number of stray dogs on the streets ? all willing to be your best friend for any kind of food. China on the other hand has no stray dogs and I think your best friend is the food? We passed one restaurant that had pictures of golden retrievers on the window!

Chinese food is quite spicy and not like the stuff we get in the UK which is laden with MSG. If you want chicken, it is a rarity to get any of the breast meat; you usually receive the bones, head and feet. If you want fish, you can either chose it from the tank or it will be brought to your table in a plastic bag still flapping for you to inspect.

Posted by Alexis at 12:01 AM GMT
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Sunday, 26 December 2004
Stepping out in Kazakhstan

14th ? 26th December 2004

Chelyabinsk (Russia) ? Petropavlosk (Kazakhstan) - Burabay ? Astana ? Kharaghanda ? Balkash ? Almaty

We are in Kazahkstan! The roads are brilliant and cleared frequently, there are petrol stations every 50km and the police (so far) are friendly! I say this as we have found so far along our travels that the inhabitants of neighbouring countries know nothing of the culture of their adjacent countries and are usually full of scare monger stories of driving in those countries. In Poland we were warned of car robberies if we stopped on the roads in Lithuania. We were warned in Estonia of there being really bad roads in Russia, relatively few of which were bad roads. We were warned by Russians of there being no petrol stations, no cash points and the worst roads known to humanity in Kazakhstan. None of which are true! There aren?t even any people that look like Borat here!

We have driven over 8000km to get here and travelled across 6 time zones. We arrived in Almaty in time for Christmas and New Year.

Our border crossing into Kazakhtan was a late night experience as we waited for 2 hours at the wrong place on the wrong side of the border after a confused translation from Galiya. We were to meet Vladimir?s (the guitar player in Yekatrinaberg) friends, Shamil and Nadiesha, who would help us with the crossing, sort out getting stamped in and make sure we got our insurance. They had even brought a translator along, Luba, to make the process a lot easier to understand. It made such a change to meet border guards who smiled, especially at 1am! Shamil and Nadiesha escorted us back to their house 80km from the border. We arrived at their house at 4am to the most unbelievable spread of Kazak food and three made up beds! We weren?t expecting that and we weren?t expecting the onslaught of vodka and cognac that flowed freely that evening and the following 3 days.

We were thrown a party by Nadiesha and Shamil and treated to the most unbelievable spread accompanied by two of their friends on guitar. Unfortunately, Shamil couldn?t play with them as he had cut the end of three of his fingers off 5 days before our arrival whilst making his guitars. He hand makes and sells guitars around the world in between being a traumatologist. Nadiesha is a high powered business woman owning and running 18 chemists around the city. We were treated to another banya in their house and Greg, Adrian and Tom were taught how to create smoked ham by tying ham up over the coals of the banya and leaving them over night. We also got treated to some bowling on the 6 lane bowling alley in the centre of Petropavlosk. Adrian got whisked away to go to the first disabled school in Kazakhstan with some boarding and orphaned children in the school.

Shamil and Nadiesha took some time off work with their friends Orla and her husband, to accompany us down the road on our trip in their VW camper van. We asked Luba if she would like to travel down to Almaty with us and act as our translator along our route and help us out with the police. We went to go and get the Beast from our lock up only to find we had a flat tyre and it wouldn?t start in the cold again. So we got towed down the road and bumped started again. The following day after the Beast was warmed from the chill by being heated overnight in Shamil?s garage and we set off to Lake Burabay about 185km down the road from Petropavlosk. We stopped for a spot of lunch admiring the sleeping hedgehog and the frozen lake that occupies most of the park. We discovered that it wasn?t entirely frozen when it started slopping over the top of Adrian?s boots! We stopped to pick up some dried fish for our journey (!) and then headed off to Astana. We were stopped by police along our route but Shamil used his charming smile and a big hug in order to not donate to the police funds.

We pulled into Astana at 10pm to meet our host?s friends and another amazing Kazak spread and after several cognac and vodka toasts to friends, to new friends and to more vodka and cognac we had a surreal dance around the living room with the family budgie zooming around the room trying to join in on the dance!

The following day we were taken to the Guinness Book of Records aquarium ? the aquarium the furthest from the sea in the world. We were then given a guided tour around Astana and taken to the tower recently constructed. From there you could see all the way across Astana, seeing the massive cranes slamming the new capital up before the deadline of 2006. There is to be a presidential palace, governmental buildings, a 4 religion church, embassy district and shopping area. Astana was made the capital in 1997 and slowly the governmental buildings are being moved from Almaty to Astana with huge investment going into the tiny city, presently with only 500,000 people. It was mentioned that some of the investment may be coming from the elusive Mr Bin Laden which is a possibility as Kazakhstan is rich in minerals, oils and has a great potential for development in the future.

From Astana, Shamil and Nadiesha decided to join us down to Karaghanda from where they would return back to Petropavlosk. We stayed overnight and a last few drinkies, before attempting to start the Beast the following day. No luck. A bad day in all as Shamil also had no luck and went on a mission to find a new battery and Alexis and Greg had their phone stolen from their bedroom (with them in it at the time!). Alexis discovered the problem as to why the lights in the cab had stopped working ? the battery had frozen! According to her Dad, lead-acid batteries stop working below -20oC?. As the Beast runs on a 12v system it has 2 batteries and the other one is newer (and didn?t freeze!). We got her bump started and took the batteries to warm up inside! We left her running overnight as the temperature was to drop to -28oC overnight and after a tumultuous night worrying about her being nicked we set off at 6am for Lake Balkash - Kazakhstan?s largest lake.

The drive across the steppe as it materialised through the snowy morning haze was amazing. A great expanse of nothingness. Vanishing off into the distance with no trees to act as markers, no houses, just the occasional petrol station and white fox hunting in the distance, amongst the icey grass. The Kazak steppe is approximately 1000km from top to bottom. There was an attempt to turn it into the breadbasket of Russia during soviet times but as cultivation of the area has stopped the legacy of too much fertilising and degraded soil as well the mineral exploitation are turning the steppe into an ecological disaster. This coupled with the evaporation of Lake Balkash and over use of the Ili River in China (supplied by Lake Balkash) the steppe is drying up. The road we drove along to the south of the lake used to be under the lake ? we couldn?t see the lake at all, not even on the horizon.

We stopped for a spot of dinner on the steppe, turned on the stove (inside) and boiled up some super noodles (a delicacy when you are starving). We watched the temperature creep up inside to +28oC as it dropped to -36.1oC outside. We carried on driving into the night looking for a hotel. We then lost power, on a hill, at 10pm. The accelerator cable had snapped. We bodged together a cable to attach the two severed bits and carried on driving in search of a hotel. We found one in the shape of a rail restaurant car with a hotel attached.

We turned the engine off, hoping that the following day the Beast would start. She did and we were on our way across the steppe again until we pulled over to look at this strange apparition that materialised in front of us! It was Father Christmas on a camel in the middle of nowhere. Wow! He allowed us to take some piccies, ask him some questions and then get up on the camel. Then he asked us for 500 tenge (#2) each for the privilege ? which we didn?t begrudge him as he was in the middle of nowhere and it must have been hard to scrape together a living. That was until he pulled out a massive wadge of notes to give us some change. We then thought well, you are several hundred km from anywhere ? there aren?t too many banks out here and who is going to mess with Father Christmas and his camel!

Our bodged cable snapped and Tom decided to replace it with string. We arrived in Almaty and parked up after travelling 400km with a snapped cable. An achievement in anybody?s book! We found an apartment at the apartment market where you barter for rooms. We spent a drunk Christmas day with all the trimmings and upsetting family phone calls from home, along with meeting expats who met Ewan MacGregor on his trip across Kazakhstan.

It was only 2 days later after we had left the steppe that I realised the almost stupidity of crossing a massive desert like area like that in the Beast that was playing up. We passed 19 cars in 6 hours. Not much help if you drove off the side of the road or you broke down. We have survived but the stress levels are slowly mounting along with rising tension. As you can all see ? it isn?t all fun and frolics!

Notes of Interest:

The Kazak facial look is very different from the Russian population. They have a flatter face with a slightly Mongol/Chinese look and a smile!! The population of Kazakhstan is made up of 3 major different factions ? Russian, Kazak and Uzbek.

One thing we all can?t get over is the number of dogs chained up outside in -30oC in Russia and Kazakhstan. Nearly everyone has a dog but nearly no one has them in their house.

The average salary is $50 - $100 in Petropavlosk increasing to $500 in the capital and Almaty. The cost of living that we have experienced so far is comparable to that of the UK. Runaway inflation seems to be taking grip of Central Asia.

There is a certain chauvanism that exists in the Russian and Kazak area. When carrying out introductions, men do not shake women's hands, just wave. Women to a certain extent should be show pieces and hidden.

The prejudices and ideas that we have encountered so far towards to western world have been very interesting and hopefully we have helped to dispell. In Chelyabinsk, a comment was made that we are the same as those in Russia and have the same needs as each other. In Kazakhstan, we were asked if we had got used to the smog that we have in Britain? Everywhere we have been our new friends have been worried about us speaking English ? more that we could watch the tourist prices go up before our eyes rather than attack. One idea that has constantly voiced with surprise through every country that we have been through is that we in the west have the same sense of humour as other countries outside of Europe.

Posted by Alexis at 12:01 AM GMT
Updated: Thursday, 6 January 2005 2:26 PM GMT
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Tuesday, 14 December 2004
Ural Challenge
28th November ? 14th December 2004

Moscow ? Suzdal ? Nizny Novogorad ? Cheboksary ? Kazan ? Ufa ? Chelyabinsk - Yekatrinaberg - Chelyabinsk

Apologies for the length of this update but this has been the most surreal few weeks with naked banyas, television interviews, crossing 3 time zones, visits to garages, -25oC temperatures, broken heaters, off road club meets and some of the most amazing and generous people in Russia! As well as the standard stops for corrupt police!

We left Moscow with 2 new additions to our beastly adventure. Galiya (owner of Porga in St Petersburg) and Martia, decided that they wanted to join our expedition to Yekatrinaburg.

The start of December has brought us four Police stops in a day slightly above average. Police stations are noted by an ANC sign at the side of the road and you are warned in advance. The Police stand out in the street with batons lurking in anticipation to flag you down to inspect your documents. The first police stop was an inquisitive cop wanting to know where we were from and going to. The second was not quite so inquisitive and wanted to find any reason to squeeze money out of us. After a few drinks the night before the Beast smelt like a vodka factory, so it was anticipated that the Police would try to breathalise Greg as an option to squeeze funds from our tightly clenched fists. So Greg was dragged into the police station to have a breath test. He was asked to breath into a plastic cup which was then taken off him and smelt by the police man?. The breathaliser! He was then going to get a more advanced breathaliser (probably a bigger cup!) so it was decided that a small ?present? to the police force should be given before a chance was given to say that Greg was over the 0.04% blood/alcohol limit. The third stop involved the policemen asking to see inside the back of the vehicle. Greg couldn?t open the door from outside so asked Adrian to push the door open from inside. Adrian didn?t have his trousers on due to the warmth in the back of the Beast. He went to kick the door open. At the same time Greg was pulling the door open. Greg pulled the door open and was confronted by Adrian?s barely clad arse and two giggling policemen.

Our drive through Russia has allowed us to see the good and the bad side of it as well as a lot of snow! Our first stop in Suzdal saw the temperatures drop to -21oC, quite cold and a poorly Beast who didn?t want to get out of bed until she was dragged by a large lorry half way around Suzdal. Our heater had burnt out and wasn?t working either so driving was not much fun as you would wipe the ice crystals from the windscreen only to be blinded by ice 10 seconds later. Opening the bonnet cover gave us some respite, but the feet of those sitting in the front suffered turning a waxy white colour (the next step black and frostbite!!).

We wizzed our way across Russia travelling from one faceless Soviet town to another, travelling in the darkness due to the mid winter daylight setting in at 3pm. Evening driving took us across the southern Siberian roads where the wind blows the snow across the road in snakes and the sides of the roads vanish into the oblivion. We were covering upto 600km per day, taking us to Chelyabinsk where we arrived at midnight tired and looking forward to bed. We met Galiya?s cousin, Sascha and his friend Alexei expecting to go to his house in Chelyabinsk. Little did we know what was in store for us for the evening. We drove our Beast to a garage that Alexei knew with slight trepidation. The girls had explained a few of our problems and suggested that we get a service done (which although we know how to do a 10,000 mile service it is a bit difficult when all the greasing points are iced up and your fingers feel like they are going to drop off!). We then all piled into a VW people mover and had the pleasure to listen to 2 hours of Russian folk songs played on the accordion by Sascha. We were driven to Yekatrinaberg and then to a supermarket where we got a few provisions. Looking tried and bedraggled and maybe a bit like tramps, we were followed everywhere around the supermarket by the security guards, which all culminated in Alexis being accused of shop lifting!

We then went to Alexei?s house for dinner at 4am! We crawled into bed at 6am after several vodkas. The following day Alexei took us to the location where, in the 1918 revolution, the Bolshevik?s murdered the Romanov?s (the Tsars of Russia) and threw their bodies into a mine poured acid over the top to destroy the bodies. The Russian Orthodox church has constructed several beautiful wooden churches and in one of the churches you can see the bones of the Romanov?s, revered as saints when they were alive.

We were then taken to Revda, a small town outside of Yekatrinaberg where we experienced the real secret Russia with several days of heavy indulgence in vodka, Russian cooking, accordion playing, drop pit toilets and banyas in Sascha and Natasha?s wooden house. Now for those of you that don?t know what a Banya is let me explain. A banya could be considered by some to be a torture room but it is a place for warming yourself up and for many towns in Russia which don?t have in-house running water, a place to have a shower and clean. A banya is a sauna with a difference. Sascha takes the art of banyas to the extreme. There is none of the namby pamby bikini or towel wearing of the western world? no no no you get in there naked. You are then subjected to 80 degree heat as well as being beaten by birch and fir branches. You certainly feel refreshed after running outside into the -15oC temperature and rolling around in the snow. After an amazing walk up into the hills overlooking Revda ,seeing snow rainbows and exploring the pine forests, we bid a sad farewell to the generosity of a wonderful Russian family.

From Sascha?s house we went to the Off Road club in Yekatrinaberg where we sat down to a light lunch expecting to talk to them about the roads in Kazakhstan which were reported to be some of the worst in Central Asia. We didn?t expect the Yekatrinaberg television crew who piled in through the door to talk to us. We explained where we had been, what we had done and the people we had met with poor Martia diligently translating for us. We were then whisked out to a restaurant owned by one of the members of the off road club where we drank more vodka, a local licqueur made from pine kernels and a slightly alcoholic brown liquid made from stewed bread. We also discussed their bid to enter into the Murmansk ? Vladivostock race to be held in early January 2005: 14,000km in 14 days across country. Slightly surreal in that Adrian and Alexis, sitting in the middle of Russia were conducting the whole conversation in Spanish! We were then taken for some late night drinking in the local strip club where several members of the Beast Crew were delighted to have private dance sessions by some of the young ladies and men!
We were delighted to have the pleasure of listening to Vladimir who played us some classic Russian folk songs on the guitar until the early hour of the morning.

After a few days enjoying the hospitality of Alexei and his wife Tanya we headed back to Chelyabinsk to pick up old Beasty. The update told us that we had low gear box oil and all the other oils had been topped up. They told us that the additive (to make unleaded petrol leaded) that we had been putting in had destroyed the carburettor membrane. They were waiting to speak to us in order to help us sort out our problems. We explained to the mechanics where we were going and what we were doing. They mended our heater and bed as well as other little things. We decided that to head to the border would be a bit mad to we decided to stay in Chelyabinsk for the night and take out the manager, Sascha, to say thanks for their help.

The following day brought us more problems. The engine was pinking ? a sign of the valves going. The Russian wet test for compression ? normally using petrol to see if the valves fire - involved putting a flame over the valves to see if it lit! Two valves had burnt out (probably from poor petrol). Health and safety is quite obviously a priority in Russia as the mechanics were smoking whilst draining the fuel from the engine and standing in the pit full of petrol fumes! A set of valves were located from a Volga and lathed down to size, with the mechanics working over the weekend to get her ready. Meanwhile we had to extend our visas in order to stay in the country. Alexei came down to oversee the works and ensure that we could get off on time. He took us to Oleg, the garage owner?s house several km out of Chelyabinsk. We got out of the car to be confronted by several security guards armed with AK47s and edged into Oleg?s house. Oleg is the Russian equivalent of Eddie Stobart, owning a fleet of 140 trucks which are serviced in garages like the one the Beast was in. He also owned 5 aeroplanes and was planning to fly around the world in 2005.

We bid a fond farewell to Galiya and Martia who flew back to St Petersburg leaving us to head for the Kazak border and more adventure. Without them we wouldn?t have discovered our Secret Russia!

Posted by Alexis at 12:01 AM GMT
Updated: Saturday, 25 December 2004 6:36 PM GMT
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Sunday, 28 November 2004
Moscow motoring
22nd ? 28th November 2004

St Petersburg - Moscow

Hello and welcome to all those that I have missed off the list! Sorry! Hello to all new additions to the email list. If you don?t want to receive our updates or are too jealous to hear about our exploits then please tell me and I will take you off the list.


We are still in Russia and we are presently in Moscow. After leaving the stunning city of St Petersburg behind with the canals just starting to freeze we headed for Moscow. The roads were treacherous with brown sludge covering black ice compacted by speeding drivers. We stopped off at Novogorad, a favourite stop over for Catherine the Great and recommended by Alice Gadney as fab place to see. Novogorad has grown up around a 12.5 hectare Kremlin (which actually means fortress) and has some stunning buildings dating from the 1400s overlooking a frozen lake. We were warmed up from the -10oC temperature outside by the Sbetin served in the restaurant (lemon, cinnamon, cloves, honey and brandy).

On the road again we stopped over in Terev? not worth mentioning? and then onto Moscow. We stopped off along the way to grab some lunch at a roadside cafe and whilst standing in the queue noticed the army officers with AK47s draped across their laps. Always nice to look up from your soup to see at that pointing at you!

We discovered that the Beast has a tendency in the freezing temperatures to not warm to more than +5oC inside and our toes, even with three pairs of socks take a battering from the insignificant insulation, at the front of the vehicle. The reason for this is because the heater has broken! If you lift the engine cover you can the temperature up to +20 oC but your toes will still freeze if sitting in the front.


We have never been in a city like Moscow where people drive so fast on such slippery and dangerous roads. There is no lane discipline to the extent that on a three lane section of the road into Moscow we counted seven lanes with people weaving between lanes and leaning on their horns. We arrived in Moscow worn out and intimidated by our environment. The apartment we had arranged had fallen through and so we found a hotel that could have easily reached the heady heights of the 5 star cockroach hell with its beautiful brown carpets, peeling wallpaper and 1960s television and radio.

Unfortunately Alexis and Greg couldn?t visit the sights of Moscow immediately as they had to pay a visit to the airport to go and pick up what should have been a fairly easy task of picking up their spare tyre very kindly sent from the UK (see previous blogs for information on the exploits for a 101 tyres!) by Alexis?s father, Andrew. Due to the number of holes on the hub and their unavailability anywhere in the world except in Yorkshire, we couldn?t get hold of one whilst on the road. We are heading off into the unknown and Kazahkstan so it is generally considered unwise to leave home with less than two spare tyres. So we arrived at the airport and after a merry dance chasing paperwork around the offices we arrived at the desk of a lady who was to help us translate our documents? a jobsworth who knew the rules. Apparently you cannot bring a tyre into Russia as an individual as a wheel is considered a spare part and therefore must be imported by a specialist car import company. We were informed that the cost of shipping the wheel to such a company, if indeed any company would accept the job, could exceed US$500 and take up to a month. The cost would be for the transport of the wheel to the specialist company and their bureaucratic fees. It turned out that no one would accept the job as the shipment was too small. We were stuck. After the managers of the freight company frantically rang around for us we were thinking about deserting the tyre altogether or having it further shipped on to China.

Disheartened and annoyed at the bureaucracy surrounding something as simple as a tyre, we headed back into the nightmare Moscow traffic. Our annoyance was further compounded by an idiot crashing into the Beast in a petrol station. As is the nature of the Beast, he came off a lot worse, scraping all the way down the side of his car! That evening we ate in the hotel and discussed Adrian and Tom getting stopped by the police and talked to a very interesting human rights activist. After telling Alexis?s Dad about the events of the day he gave us a fantastic contact in Alec Khramov at IMS Holdings, a large valve manufacturer in Russia. He said that 2 of his people would pick us up the following day and help us out!

The following day we traipsed back out to the airport and we were taken to the freight section by Aleco and Svetlana. After some well placed phone calls, we waited, our paperwork was filled in and some special Russian magic was worked as we retrieved our tyre from the depths of the warehouse (without paying the US$500) 8 hours later. Thanks to the Russian tyre angels!

A few days of sightseeing and we have seen the Kremlin, Red Square and Gorky Park for a spot of ice skating. This is one of the warmer times of winter to see Moscow as in later December the temperatures drop to a chilling -30oC.

Note to any visitors: NEVER look a policeman in the eye and if you don?t get your passport stamped in the hotel you will have to pay a little visit to the police station where they will search you and try to swindle you out of some of your hard earned cash. Alexis and Greg had this privilege and were subjected to sitting in the police interrogation room inspecting the posters of the different kinds of guns available to the police. We should be presently sitting in a court room?.but had to hand over a 500 rouble note into a little book which was snapped shut quickly and inevitably vanished into the pocket of a corrupt policeman. It is sad that the lasting impression of Russians that most foreigners will receive is that of the police ? corrupt, malicious and untrustworthy. We have encountered so many wonderful Russians along our way that their police do their country a great injustice.

Posted by Alexis at 12:01 AM GMT
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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Baltics to Beluga
Since we last wrote to you we have travelled a further 1000 km up through the Baltic states and into Russia where the snow has started to fall and the temperature has dropped to -7 oC (quite warm really!).


Poland is a beautiful country that is desperately in need of investment on their roads that are pockmarked and dented. In Gdansk we tried to find a place that would supply a new tyre, rim and inner tubes? to no avail!! We headed down to Malbork, the castle town of the Teutonic Knights. They relocated their headquarters from Venice in order to have more control over the region. From Malbork we staggered out of bed at 5am to try and make it into Lithuania before sundown. On the way towards the border we were clipped by a fire engine that smashed the wing mirror? so now we were hunting for a mirror as well! We were warned about Lithuania and told that if we stopped anywhere we would be robbed and our vehicle stripped and stolen from us. Unfortunately we didn?t make it over the border before sundown so we stayed on the border and found some inner tubes, but no tyres!

The Baltic States

All of the Baltic states have received European Union money to finance the construction of the Baltic Highway. Our journey into Lithuania was a smooth ride in comparison to the Polish roads. The Baltic States are covered in forests with over 60% of the land sprouting trees.


We survived the trip into Lithuania with robbery or stripping?Our first impression of Lithuania was one of a country that respects the dead; the cemeteries were bursting to the brim with flowers and solar powered candle pots that lit up at night. We had arrived in the country a few days after the Day of the Dead. Not a horror movie but the Eastern European All Hallows Eve (Hallow?een), a festival of worship of the dead?

We arrived in Vilnius and went to the E-Guesthouse (free internet access). Vilnius is a city in the waiting ? to all you Ryanairers, get over there ( ? they also do it!!)

Vilnius is a practically unpopulated city (600,000) without the tourists of other Baltic states. It is a hyper trendy city in the waiting. We went to a bar with grass lining the wall, with red chandeliers dangling from the ceiling and gnomes hiding in every corner. Even the Lithuanian traditional food restaurant had a tree growing up through the bar, spiky clubs to hit your enemy with as well as the all essential snake pit and cockerels wandering around along with pig knuckles and pig hand gracing the menu!


After a few days in Vilnius we travelled into Latvia and up to the coast into Riga. The city is full of one ways signs and crazy divers. After and hour or two of driving the wrong way around the city we managed to crawl into our hotel room ? one between the four of us! We went for an Estonian (a pay per weight meal of cabbage, beef and potatoes), an Irish pub visit and then a visit to the hotel recommended nightclub. Roxys appeared to be a reputable place with the exception of the older single business men and lone women dancing provocatively on the dance floor. A young man?s paradise one would think.

Riga is a den of iniquity?as well as a beautiful city of history devastated by the Germans and the Russians. We visited castellated buildings, cat houses (see the photos), the presidential palace and the markets.


A further journey north up into Estonia. Tallinn is a small capital (population 415,000) that has exploded in popularity (some suspect due to the Eurovision song contest as well as the inundation of stag dos (as well as the stunning women (as in the other Baltic States)).

It is almost Disney in its cleanliness and pristine organisation. Cobbled streets, stunning buildings lining tiny roads leading to castles perched on top of hills staring down onto the city.

We definitely recommend that you visit the Baltic states? summer is probably the best time to visit and the people are so friendly (especially the ladies!).


We are presently in St Petersburg, the Venice of Russia, with waterways criss crossing the city. The towering buildings line the canals in a very Italian way! An it has just started snowing

Russia has been eventful already. We spent three hours at the border gesticulating and trying to sort out insurance (which we could only obtain for Greg as we could only get insurance for one person per vehicle!). The guy that helped us was Greg?s doppelganger and gave Greg a Russian Custom?s hat. We were so elated that when we travelled over the border we didn?t notice the STOP sign until the last minute, 50m from the border. We pulled in and Greg then spent the next half an hour negotiating with the police. They went through all of our documentation finding things that they could pull to bits until they just sat there. Greg sat there and went ?What can we do?????????. The POLICEMAN then typed into his phone (in order to not write anything down incriminating him) 500 rubles (#10). After a 500 ruble note was handed over and then hidden under the table, we were on our way, disgusted with the way that the Russian bureaucracy works. We staggered into St Petersburg at 6pm (not a nice thing driving on roads where you think you are going to be accosted by the police at every corner and potholes jump up at Greg (blind as a bat) in the dark!

We have graced the Borgas nightclub that lurks beneath our nightclub and were slightly perplexed by the nightly new year celebrations accompanied with sparklers and president on the tv announcing the new year?? then Father Christmas bounded accompanied by a bride and groom?.

St Petersburg is a very European city with stunning buildings and now it is snowing picture postcard sceneries. Gone are the days of bread queues, in are the days of Gucci, capitalism and an inundation of foreign investment, although the historical politics of the city are still ongoing with divisions between Moscow and St Petersburg creating large rifts in the country.

Posted by Alexis at 6:00 PM GMT
Updated: Friday, 3 June 2005 6:07 PM BST
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Saturday, 6 November 2004
Hamburg (Germany) to Vilnius (Lithuania)
We are presently in Lithuania as some of you may know from updates from us.

We were lucky enough to be included in the Cambridge Evening News again (all thanks to Rebecca Attwood) - if you would like to search for the article please go to this webpage and look up Beastly

So here is the weekly update to get you all salivating at our epic monster of a journey!


After our update last where I told you about the visit to the red light district, we ventured into Hamburg ( a surprisingly pretty city) and then ended up in an underground Brauhaus where they served beer in 10 litre kegs and meat slabs on a wooden platter.

From Hamburg we moved up on to the Baltic Coast (Stahlbude and the Insel Rugen area) where Tom and Greg went to a local nightclub with the local men in the know and returned at 4am with Greg incapable of climbing the ladder to get into the Maggiolina on the roof. The following day brought more than just a hangover. The starter motor had cracked and wouldn't crank us to get started and on the road. We had so much help from the local guys who came and bashed things and towed us but were unable to supply us with a new starter motor on a Sunday. So we had to wait until Monday to get to a garage that was open and then wait until Tuesday for the new part to be shipped in. Meanwhile we were standed in Stralsund, a UNESCO World Heritage site, located on an island, with stunning buildings dating from the 12th Century.

So back on the road again and heading for Poland. Unfortunately the maps omitted to tell us that the border to the north of Germany is closed to every kind of traffic except for pedestrians... grrr! So we had to stay over so close to the border, yet unable to cross it! The owner of the hotel we stayed in told us of a lady who had arrived last year and was walking from York (UK) to New York at the age of 65... so we were slightly humbled by that (at least we have some comfort albeit travelling at 50mph and feeling every bump!)


We managed to make it to Poland eventually by travelling to the next border open 130km south of where we were! We stayed in Gdansk after having to resolve another puncture. Gdansk was almost obliterated during the war with over 60% of the buildings being destroyed. The Polish nation reconstructed the buildings and the town is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Gdansk consists of cobbled roads, tall multi coloured pastel buildings that look like those seen in Copenhagen and is a city waiting to be discovered by the likes of cheap airlines across Europe. Well worth a visit!

From Gdansk we set off across the potholed and cobbled motorways of Poland to the Lithuanian border and hunting for a replacement tyre, inner tube and hub. We managed to make it to Malbork where the Teutonic Knights that ruled most of the Germanic and Polish area moved their head quarters from Venice to an enormous 12th Century fortified castle in the town.

From Malbork we have staggered into Lithuania were we are currently staying in an e hotel in Vilnius, the capital. A capital with only 600,000 people!

Posted by Alexis at 12:01 AM GMT
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