South Korea Part 1 – 12-2014

December 7, 2014

South Korea! What most Americans and perhaps Europeans know about South Korea is its caustic neighbor, North Korea. As it turns out, South Korea is a modern and well developed country ranked 15th in the Human Development Index, the highest in East Asia. In terms of average wage, it has Asia’s highest and the world’s 10th highest income. It is the world’s most research-and-development intensive country and the most innovative as measured by the Bloomberg Innovation Quotient. South Korea is the world’s seventh largest exporter, driven by high-tech multinationals such as Samsung, Hyundai-Kia and LG. A highly advanced information society, South Korea has the world’s fastest Internet connection speed and a female President! What’s not to like about that?

Disembarking from the Eastern Dream ferry on which The Turtle V had been safely parked in the lower deck, it was nearly dark when we finished with customs and insurance paperwork, we turned onto Hwy 7 and headed south.

Drivers were shockingly polite. No honking of horns. A few miles down the road, we turned off at the Samcheok Beach exit, not knowing what we would find. As yet, we had no GPS or paper maps. Monika had downloaded the Lonely Planet South Korean Guide from iBooks on the mothballed iPad that we never got to work properly but however useful those books are, they are not aimed at overland travelers driving their own self-contained camper.

Shortly we came to an intersection with an underpass clearly marked 3.6 meters!! We generally go with 3.5 meters on the Turtle V that includes the custom storage box on the rear of the roof. Our most accurate measurement is 3.3 meters. We held our breath, waiting for the box and the Yakima rack bars to be sliced off. Wheuu!! We made it!!

Turning right at the beach, well lit so the military patrols might spot a North Korean trying to sneak in, we parked in a huge empty parking lot, our home for the next three days. It was a beautiful beach with a boardwalk and swings, clean restrooms and water, and half a block from our truck no less than six cute “coffee dessert” cafés with high-speed Internet and electrical plugs by the tables. (Who needs Starbucks?)

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The next day was Thanksgiving. Forget football, but what’s for dinner? Looking at the photos outside restaurants down the street, we could not identify anything that looked like comfort food. (A lot of it looked like “bait”, used for getting food!) Our Thanksgiving feast was multinational, as it should be: Hors d’oeuvre included hot buttered popcorn, (US), slices of dill pickles and cheese, (Russia), along with a shot or two of Mongolian Genghis Khan vodka. The main course was a rich Mole Poblano sauce, (Mexico), over chicken (canned from the US), bulgur from Turkey and sautéed carrots from Russia. Sorry, no pumpkin pie. We settled for some creamy JIFF peanut butter (US), on vanilla cookies, (Russia), and homemade apricot jam from our stash of frozen apricots from Kyrgyzstan. All the while our Espar Airtronic heater purred away, keeping us warm and cozy. We haven’t seen a turkey since we left Greece.

Thanksgiving morning a guy designing on yet another coffee shop brought us hot coffee and welcomed us. Next, the police stopped by, just curious about the strange truck but very friendly. The day after, a group of sea kayakers arrived and camped just down the beach. Real campers!! One guy, Lee, had a big teepee with a unique pellet-burning stove inside. A couple of them spoke English and invited us that evening for a taste of their local food and some homemade pumpkin/rice wine. (Not even close to pumpkin pie.) Lee, who also spoke excellent English, invited us the following evening and we sat in his warm teepee looking for a way to download a South Korean map on Monika’s i-Pad. It worked. In the morning he invited us for rice-cake soup and Monika prepared REAL Turkish coffee, something he had never had. He knew from a movie that Turks read their fortune from the left-over coffee grounds poured onto the saucer so we laughingly tried our luck at it.

Later he kindly drove us to the fishing village of Samcheok for some grocery shopping and a map from the Tourist Information Office. The smell of drying fish was in the air. Among other specialties it was squid season and many hung on drying lines in the sun. At night fishing boats use long strings of bright lights that attract the squid to the surface where they are netted. Other fish come along for the ride.

It was also cabbage season—–tons of it. A dish called “kimchi” is part of Korea’s national identity. Making kimchi from Napa Cabbage was historically a way for people to preserve vegetables for the long harsh Korean winter before the advent of modern refrigeration. With the introduction of chili peppers to Asia from the New World by the Portuguese in the 1600′s, it didn’t take long before people figured out that the capsicum in peppers had an antimicrobial effect aiding in preservation, while adding a little spice to the bleak winter days. 

Looks like the next Ro-Ro ship to take our Turtle V back to California will sail on December 16, so we have some time to explore a little of this beautiful country.

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Russia Part 2, 11-2014

December 2, 2014

Arriving in Vladivostok, the port city on the far southern coast of eastern Russia, our first priority was to meet Yuri Melnikov, our shipping agent. Yuri would arrange our customs exit from Russia and our ferry passage to South Korea. Next, we had to wash off the grime from The Turtle V of over 4,000 miles of Siberian winter roads. Then we took advantage of a day of rest to explore this old Russian port. In 1860, the military supply ship Manchur, under the command of Captain-Lieutenant Alexey K. Shefner, called at the Golden Horn Bay to found an outpost called Vladivostok.The name Vladivostok loosely translates from Russian as “the ruler of the East”. The city had been closed to all foreigners until 1992.

We give ourselves a thumbs-up having completed our second crossing of Eurasia, this time from West to East.

We give ourselves a thumbs-up having completed our second crossing of Eurasia, this time from West to East.

Signs of the crumbling Soviet empire were still to be seen, but the city was warm and inviting and many of the old buildings have been beautifully restored, including the historic train depot, the terminus of the infamous Trans-Siberian Railway. There was a feeling of being in a “city by the bay” like our own San Francisco, with amazing suspension bridges, some of the highest in the world, and relaxing promenades along the waterfront. A street guitarist played the Beatles’ song, “Let it Be” when we strolled by. As we had felt 18 years ago, despite political differences, Russians still want to identify with all the images of the European and Western world, clearly evidenced by the street ads and billboards. In fact, despite the recent problems of Georgia and the Ukraine, all the people we met here and on the road were very friendly and a few were genuinely excited to meet both Americans and Swiss foreigners for the first time. The USA and CH country stickers and the Swiss and American flags on the rear of The Turtle V just above the California license plate were met with the same extension of Russian hospitality we had experienced in 1996. We were joined at the port by a nice French couple, Maéva and Remi, traveling in a huge Mercedes motorhome with two big dogs. Having already experienced several mechanical problems with their overloaded vehicle, we again felt lucky that we had only relatively minor difficulties on our whole Trans-Eurasian adventure. As The Turtle V was driven away to load on the Eastern Dream ferry, we gave ourselves a big “thumbs up”, having completed our second crossing of Eurasia, this time from West to East, and with only South Korea and the Pacific Ocean on the horizon, our second adventure around the world. Standing on a pier at the water’s edge, yes, we could see the back porch of Sarah Palin’s home in Alaska.

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Russia Part 1, 11-2014

November 28, 2014

For those of you who are wondering where we are at the moment, when you find out, please send us an email so we know too. In the meantime, here is Russia in the blink of an eye. Yes, we will get to the gory details when we catch up with our blogs.

You may refer to the last blog on Monika’s birthday and recall the stick poking through the camel’s nose with the rope tied to it. Since we left the beautiful country of Turkey and headed east on the Silk Road, we too have had a “stick” in our nose, a stick called “VISAS”, and the rope has been the incredible bureaucracies of the countries we have driven through. We did not spit at them, but there were many times when we wish we could have.

Monika's BD Mongolia 027

After wading thorough the Mongolian border exit paperwork, (four hours), and a relatively quick crossing into Russia, we headed for a safe haven in the city of Rubtsovsk where we had many friends awaiting us with open arms. There was a serious “clunk” in the front end of The Turtle V, and as we suspected, it was our wheel bearings getting loose, the result of thousands of miles of the worst imaginable roads possible; 6-inch washboard, deep sand, mud, toilet bowl-size pot-holes, hundreds of lock-to-lock mountain hairpin corners, temperatures from below 0°F to over 120°F, and a few thousand miles more of normal high-speed highways. We do carry replacement bearings, races and seals, but the quick fix for our Dynatrac Free-Spin hubs was simply to have a local mechanic adjust the outer bearings. Had we not had used the Dynatrac Free-Spin hubs with their rebuildable and adjustable Spicer bearings, the problem would have been a catastrophic total failure of the Ford factory “unibearings”.

With that problem solved, we were able to spend a few days with our friends that we had met when we crossed Siberia in 1996. They helped us buy a SIM card for our phone, took us on shopping trips to the local open markets and arranged all needed paperwork for Monika’s Russian visa extension. Being Swiss, she had only been able to get a 10-day “transit visa”, hardly enough time to drive the 4,521 miles, (7,115 km), from Olgii, Mongolia to Vladivostok on the far eastern Pacific Coast of Russia where we would take the ferry to South Korea.

A few wonderful dinners and a super “banya”, (Russian sauna), with the traditional birch branch beating gave us a rest from the “visa stick” in our nose that was being constantly yanked. We had safe parking in Lyosha’s driveway with water and power if we needed it. Lyosha’s wife, Nina, insisted on cooking up some of our Russian favorites while someone was filling our glasses with vodka. Vitaly was our constant guide, chauffeur and interpreter while his wife, Svetlana, filled out the documents in Russian for Monika’s visa extension.

After a final goodbye, we hit the icy roads of Siberia with memories of our crossing in 1996. Many good changes had taken place but it also included much more traffic. Now instead of frozen dirt and gravel roads, they were mostly paved, covered with treacherous ice and hard-packed snow. The plows were busy but they could hardly keep up with the storm we drove though. Passing semi-trucks would create near whiteout conditions in the dry powder.

Daylight hours were getting shorter as we headed north around the hump of China, demanding that if we were to make any real progress, we needed to drive some at night. Uncapping our PIAA 510 ATP XTreme White Driving Halogen Lamps and aiming them low gave us an idea of the centerline and sides of the narrow two-lane highway, sometimes in blizzard conditions. The 580 Driving XTreme White Plus Halogen Lamps were pointed about 60 yards down the road, giving us ample time to see potholes or other unannounced obstacles. Oncoming traffic was quick to let us know if we were slow in turning off the incredibly bright 580’s.

Our Michelin XZL tires had been a concern even back in Turkey. With already some 18,000 miles on them then, would they last on the bad roads through the Stans and then all the way across China? Much to our relief and amazement, even after the horrendous crossing of the Altai Gobi Desert in Mongolia, we had no flats. Even running at reduced pressures, (40psi front 50psi rear), for three months when paved roads were so rough and potholed that they were worse than the dirt washboard of Mongolia, the XZL’s had not lost a single pound of air during the entire trip. Now at nearly 40,000 miles, the treads still had plenty of bite in the snow and slop. Nothing will stop on ice and packed snow. We did have Pewag Mud & Snow chains for all four wheels, but that would have reduced our speed to 35 mph. Without chains or studs, it made for some white-knuckle driving on the corners and passing slow big rigs.

As temperatures dropped to -23°F we reflected that driving up the frozen Lena River from Yakutsk to Lensk for 680 miles and then another 700 miles on winter roads through the Taiga forest in 1996 was infinitely easier and more exciting in a different way.

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Monika’s Birthday – Mongolia 10/2014

November 11, 2014

What’s a birthday? Just another number on the calendar right? Not for Monika! Her birthdays are special and can last for days, depending on what she dreams up each year. Backpacking in the California Sierras, climbing to the top of Half Dome nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level, jumping out of a perfectly good airplane at 18,000 feet to skydive over Monterey Bay, a week or two in Cuba—–are you getting the picture?

This year was no exception. She was set on a camel trek in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Fortunately, we were already in Mongolia in the Altai region of the Gobi, and there were plenty of camels.

We went to Kazakh Tours, (mistake), in Olgii to see what they offered. We should have taken a hint when the owner, Dosjan, came 15 minutes late for the 10:00 AM appointment we had made. Finishing the chunk of chocolate hanging out of his mouth, in-between yawns, he said no problem. He had arranged many treks by camel in the Altai Gobi Desert. Since he was an official ticket agent for Aero Mongolia, we also had him make round-trip reservations for our flight to Ulaanbaatar where we had to pick up the repair parts for our rear suspension sent by Hellwig from California, get Monika’s Mongolian visa extended and apply for our Russian visas. All that’s another story.

The next morning our driver, (I use the term loosely.), picked us up at the comfortable Travelers Guest House where Nazka Khavel, the owner, had graciously allowed us to parked The Turtle V. We headed off in his unheated rattle-trap UAZ into the mountains at off-road racing speeds. Turned out Dosjan, (Kazakh Tours), had changed the family/owner of the camels without telling us, and the driver didn’t really know where they lived. After several stops to make cell phone calls for directions, smoke a cigarette and others to ask locals where we were going, where to cross the river, (hum), and which faintly visible track to take, after two hours, we arrived at a typical Kazakh mud brick home in the middle of a huge valley instead of the expected Mongolian Ger (Yurt). We were invited in and enjoyed the typical hot milk tea while we warmed up and waited for the camels.

Yes, another birthday wish of Monika’s comes true!

Yes, another birthday wish of Monika’s comes true!

The camels were not too happy about having their morning interrupted and showed their discontent by belching and spitting, (really more like a “power barf”) of half chewed sour smelling grass, spraying our guide, Arman, and us with whatever else makes up camel cud. The cute little stick poking through their nose with a rope tied to it was the method of control. Hey! What would you do if you had a stick though your nose and your wife/husband etc. yanked on the rope and said, “Get down on your knees or I’ll yank on the rope again?”

So they knelt and we climbed on, and off we went for a 3–hour ride across the lumpy grasslands, splashing through creeks & mud holes and weaving our way around herds of sheep, goats, cows, yaks and horses as the camels lurched behind our “guide”. We think he was a great guy and a talented golden eagle hunter, but leading tourists on camel treks was not really his business and his English was zit. It took about five minutes for him to understand that Gary wanted to stop and get off the camel for a few minutes.

We quickly noticed that something was missing—-like padding!! There was no saddle as we had seen in museums and even on the cover of our Lonely Planet Mongolian guide book. One of us sat painfully on a cover the thickness of a cheap beach towel. The other had a slightly better felt pad suitable for a ten minute tourist ride around the paddock. The bony backbone of a camel is rock-hard (think dinosaur). The extremely uneven terrain made the stride of the beasts even more pronounced as they stumbled along.

It was about 20°F/-7°C and after an hour we started to think about the ride back. Unfortunately, Arman, who was really a local stockman and more interested in checking on his herds of sheep and that of his neighbors, took the long way home. Returning to the simple three-room house, we were happy to be back on the ground. The mother and father were off in Kazakhstan but his 20-year old sister and their younger sibling had stoked up the firebox with a fresh load of cow dung and hot tea was waiting. There wasn’t a tree for miles around, so dried cow and horse dung are the main sources for heat and cooking. They had also prepared a delicious one-plate lunch of lamb, (mutton), potatoes and noodles.

We took some fun photos with Arman’s Golden Eagle and headed back to Olgii. When we arrived at the Travelers Guest house, Nazka’s teenage relative, Boba, knocked on the door and presented Monika with pencil drawing of The Turtle V as a birthday card, and her husband had brought a very pink birthday cake that the young kids and we devoured in short order. Nazka presented Monika with a pretty Kazakh-style hand-embroidered bag and had cooked a tasty meatball soup that everyone enjoyed after the cake. When there are kids around, cake comes first.

We retired to our warm camper to sip some birthday wine and inspect the memories on our butts that we will not show you photos of here.

After a week, the bloody sores on our rear ends had healed, the tailbones had recovered and the memories are fading to humor,— sort of.

Another memorable birthday. What’s next year? Climbing to Mount Everest’s Base Camp or up Kilimanjaro, spend a week with a Masai family?? Stay tune for Monika’s Birthday. Never a dull moment!!

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Golden Eagle Festival Part 2 – Mongolia 10-2014

October 26, 2014

It was 23°F outside under a blazing blue sky as the second day of the 16th Annual Golden Eagle Hunters Festival began. Different from the previous day’s event where eagles had to attack a dead rabbit or fox being drug behind their trainer’s horse, today they had to zero in on their owner who held a chunk of meat in his gloved hand while riding at full speed across the field. Sharp talons extended, as soon the eagle had landed on the glove it was breakfast time. This too was all timed by officials and the Kazakh hunter would race by the judging stand with his eagle enjoying the ride with wings open in an impressive display of the close relationship of man, horse and bird.

While the next competition was being organized, we wandered around the gers where beautiful “tus kis” (hand-embroidered tapestries) used to decorate the ger walls and other souvenirs were for sale. Several locals had set up grills to cook “shashlik”, skewers of mutton and fat sprinkled with their own special spices, served with raw sliced onions and bread.

Among the local Mongols, there were several archery contests. In one competition, instead of pointed arrows, they used blunt tips and the goal was to hit small leather balls that had been lined up about 30 yards away. It looked like bocce ball with a Mongolian twist. Their accuracy was impressive.

Golden Eagle Festival, Olgii, Mongolia 009

Meanwhile, the camel race was being staged. It was not as action-packed as we might have imagined, since the ungainly bactrians are not really into galloping across the stony desert.

Back in the main arena, the final competition for the eagle hunters was getting under way. A sheep carcass was tossed on the ground and the riders, two at a time, would pick it up and get a firm grip for an exciting tug-a-war that could last several minutes until one of the riders succeeded in wrestling the bloody carcass away from the other. The horses played a critical roll in the battle and the skill of the riders was amazing as they kept their grip on the carcass and used the power of their stocky Mongolian horses to the best advantage. Competition was fierce and we spotted quite a few who were nursing their bleeding knuckles.

In past years, the winner of the eagle contest was allowed to send his eagle after a live fox or a small wolf pup as a final demonstration of the eagle’s skill for the crowd. The fox this year died or was killed, so a wolf pup was to be used. However, there were so many sympathetic spectators that someone purchased the poor wolf to spare its life. How it will manage in the wild of the coming winter in the mountains full of other hungry eagles is a good question. As cruel as some may think it is to hunt cute little foxes or wolfs or rabbits and other small animals with an eagle for “sport”, we meat-eaters regularly kill deer, moose, elk and even a cow or a lamb to eat. Eagle hunting has been a tradition in this part of the world for over 2,000 years. Nothing goes to waste. Gathering winter pelts is part of the hunter/herder’s livelihood and still provides the warm clothing for the severe winters.

As a side note, when the trained eagle has reached the age of about 10 years, she is taken to a mountaintop, presented with a dead sheep as a going-away present and released to the wild to once again live a life of freedom and to breed.

All in all, a very exciting two days of a spectacle we could probably not see anywhere else in the world. Now it was time to make a new plan. As much as we would have liked to drive back to Ulaanbaatar, taking our time to visit some of the remote families herding their sheep, yaks, cows, horses, camels and goats along the way and then heading for the Central Gobi desert to celebrate Monika’s birthday, The Turtle V needed some repairs on the rear suspension and a full check-up after its grueling 900-mile crossing of the Altai Gobi. The first step was to wash off the mud and dust. Clean trucks run better.

Note: Click a photo for a bigger picture and then scroll quickly through the first few frames to get a feeling for what transpires in just a few seconds!

 

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Golden Eagle Festival Part 1 – Mongolia 10-2014

October 22, 2014

After a harrowing 5-day/900-mile, (1,500 kilometers), drive across the amazing expanses of the northern Gobi Desert, (see previous blog), we arrived at the site of the 16th Annual Golden Eagle Hunters Festival just outside of Bayan-Olgii in Western Mongolia, (You recall, this is the “middle of nowhere”.), and parked to join the growing crowd of spectators. We knew there were a couple of problems with the rear suspension, but nothing that needed our immediate attention. The sun was shining in a futile attempt to warm an icy wind gusting across the field of competition. The temperature was hovering around freezing.

Things were just getting started with the first big contest. Ethnic Kazakh eagle hunters from all over this part of the country had gathered, reportedly some 72 of them. Dressed in their finest attire, they were a fierce bunch indeed. The real stars were the Golden Eagles, huge birds of prey, some weighing over sixteen pounds with wingspans up to 8 feet. In these mountains of the Mongolian Altai, eagle hunting has been a tradition for over 2,000 years.

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In turn, each hunter, mounted on a stocky Mongolian horse, would start at the end of the field and call to his eagle, which at that moment, timed by the officials, would have its hood removed and be released by an assistant from a nearby hill. If the eagle was well trained and in tune with the game, she, (yes, females are normally used because they are larger than males), would hear the call of her owner and spot the dead rabbit or Corsac fox pulled behind his horse at a full gallop.

Approaching at speeds up to 150 miles per hour, (241 km/h), the eagle would zero in on the bait, and braking slightly at the last few seconds, hit the target, sharp talons extended, with up to 700 pounds of impact. Normally, in a real hunt, this would kill or at least stun the prey instantly. At this point, the trainer would quickly dismount and retrieve his bird to its perch on his thick leather glove, offering some tasty pieces of mutton or perhaps a rabbit leg. For the eagle, it may be sport. It may be a challenge. For sure, it’s about getting food, so in the mountains where hunting is done in the winter, the trainer must remove the eagle from the dead prey before the pelt is damaged.

If you look at the series of photos below, you may get an idea of the action which took mere seconds to photograph at a “high-speed continuous” setting. It was a very impressive demonstration of speed and power.

Each eagle contestant was timed from her release to final impact on the target. A fast kill could be 14 seconds from start to finish. In some cases, the eagle would circle for a few minutes, just enjoying the freedom of flight. In one case, spotting the dead rabbit drug behind her trainer’s horse, as the eagle came in for the kill, her attention strayed to a small dog in the crowd of spectators and, looking for something more filling, suddenly veered off and hit the poor dog. The trainer quickly rescued it, but we don’t know if the dog survived. The eagle was just doing what her instincts told her to do……get food.

Exhausted from our drive, we retired to the warmth of The Turtle V to take a shower and cook dinner. A nasty wind whistled outside. As we had many times on this trip, we were very glad to be in a warm hard-sided camper with the luxury of hot water and the convenience of our Thetford Porta Potti. The Espar Airtronic air heater purred away at its “maintenance” mode and our Espar D5 Hydronic, working with the FlatPlate fluid heat exchanger, gave us all the hot water we could use.

After a shot of Genghis Khan vodka, we slept soundly, glad to be off the road and looking forward to the next day’s competition.

Note: Click a photo for a bigger picture and then scroll quickly through the hunting scene to get a feeling for what transpires in just a few seconds!

 

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Golden Eagle Festival – Getting There – Mongolia 10-2014

October 16, 2014

Yes, we know. If you have been trying to following us from Greece to Turkey to Georgia to Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan to Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan and across all of China—-well, travel has been a bit hectic. Keeping up with visa entry deadlines and just life on the road has left little time and energy to sort photos and write blogs. We will backtrack and give all the details when we slow down, but in the meantime, life has been too exciting to leave you hanging in the Taklamakan Desert in China, our last posting.

Arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, we had learned from our Lonely Planet Guide that the annual Golden Eagle Hunters Festival was taking place the following weekend on the other side of the country. All plane flights were booked so the option was to drive. Anyway, getting there is half the fun, right?

We are now in Olgii, Western Mongolia. In 1996, as we crossed all of Russia, we followed an obscure trading route along the Mongolian border to a town called Kosh Agach, described by our Lonely Planet Russian Guide as “close to the middle of nowhere”. Olgii is just a few hours south of Kosh Agach, so I think we have reached “the middle of nowhere”.

When the pavement ended, we were looking at a maze of two-tracks wandering across the grassland of the northern part of the Gobi Desert, (second in size only to the Sahara). This was a “National Highway”. No problem. While Gary watched for washouts, potholes and sharp rocks, Monika scanned the distant web of two-tracks and obscure road markers to make sure we were still going the right direction. It would have been very easy to get lost. Often the most obvious track lead off to a ger over the hill or to a small community not on our new Mongolia Tourist Map.

Nine hundred miles and five 10 to 12 hour days later, driving on 3-inch washboard, gravel, mud, crossing a river or two and the surprising short sections of blacktop, often not even sure if we were on the right road, we arrived in “the middle of nowhere” and parked in a dust storm at the site of the 14th Annual Golden Eagle Hunters Festival.

 Was it worth it? We’ll let you know after we replace a few broken bolts on the suspension and crawl underneath to see what else is loose.

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Taklamakan Desert, China – August 28, 2014

September 6, 2014

August 28, 2014

China! We finally arrived in Kashgar, the Magical City of the Silk Road. Our cute guide, Zhang Zhiqiong, was waiting for us. An English major, she chose the rather unusual name of “Green” as her English nickname. Why? Because she was born on Earth Day.

Our 30-day driving schedule across China arranged by NAVO will be grueling, and we have no time for blogs. Google, Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China. We just wanted everyone to know we are fine.

 

September 1, 2014

As for our journey across the Taklamakan Desert, we chose to first start on the southern end, then cross the desert and continue along the northern edge to Dunhuang on the east side. (Kashgar-Mingfeng-Taklamakan crossing-Luntai-Turfan-Dunhuang)

We stayed overnight in the middle of the Taklamakan Desert on the outskirts of the only settlement along the route, Tazhong.

 

More some other time!

Gary and Monika

 

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Pamir Hwy #1, Tajikistan 7/2014

August 20, 2014

Turning off the Wakhan Corridor, we breathed a little sigh of relief, but really, compared to the roads we had driven through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan just to get to Khorog, the Wakhan had been a drive in the park. Now we headed west again, back to Khorog to resupply and to experience the Pamir Highway, reported to be vey beautiful and supposedly the best highway in the country. Humm??

We immediately hit pavement. Wow!! Real blacktop. Should we air the tires back up? Well not quite yet. The Pamir is paved, sort of, in-between the potholes the size of toilet bowls and sections of dusty gravel and rocks. Maybe 20 years ago it was a good road, but the convoys of overloaded Chinese semi tractor trailers hauling everything from earth movers to plastic household goods and rice have pretty much destroyed the road bed and no effort has been made to repair it. It was so bad, for a while, we almost turned around. Very glad we didn’t. The road didn’t get any better, but the scenery was spectacular, even more impressive than the Wakhan had been.

Local people were welcoming and friendly. Kids waved. A few times we were invited for “chai”, but we promised to stop on our way back. Already being familiar with Khorog, we knew the market and where to camp, get Internet, water and fuel. We arrived just before dark so we parked and headed straight to the well-known Indian restaurant for, (as we had been told), an excellent dinner and even a decent glass of wine. We deserved it!

We spent three days recuperating, meeting new people, shopping and catching up on our email and blogs (joke!!). The roads, (sic), we had followed since Turkey had pounded and beaten The Turtle V unmercifully. If it had feelings, it must have felt like one of those slave prisoners tossed into the Coliseum in Rome, set against wild animals and vicious gladiators armed with chain-whips, spears and clubs. The truck had survived, but tires, suspension, clutch, brakes, steering, and every mechanical component you can imagine has been severely tested. Careful preparation at Ken Imler’s Diesel Performance in Sacramento and our own choice of the best aftermarket products available have paid off. We can’t possibly list all the important companies who have helped build and outfit our expedition trucks for many years, but if you are curious, they are listed on the Suppliers Page on our web site.

After a rather futile attempt to wash off the mud and dust from the last thousand miles, we filled water and fuel and headed back east on the Pamir Highway, on our way to the Kyrgyzstan border. We knew with dread what the first part of the road conditions would be like, but we looked forward to a few stops to revisit new friends we had met on our way back from the Wakhan turnoff to Khorog.

 

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Wakhan Corridor #2 – The People, Tajikistan 7-2014

August 8, 2014

People in the foreign countries we are visiting are part of the joy of overland travel, and for sure, the children are the most fun. They have no fear, no set opinions, no religious or political concerns. They are just curious that strange people in a strange vehicle from a place they may never have heard of suddenly appeared. We can show them on the map on the side of camper where we live, but usually it’s beyond their imagination. A balloon, one of our photo cards or some fun stickers from our sponsors always bring smiles. When they spot our truck coming, they often run to the side of the road and wave. Our passing may be the most exciting thing that has happened all week.

In villages along the road or in the big markets, there are many wonderful women. The lines in their faces show the hard life they have endured, but the smiles are always there. Men and older boys are more interested in The Turtle V but we can’t really answer their main question, “How much does it cost.” We just say that we don’t know because we have many sponsors. To explain why a custom expedition camper might cost over $180,000 is more than they can really grasp, so we try to avoid the question. Young girls are sometimes a little shy, but their magical smiles are a treasure. Family ties are extremely important, and we try to catch a photo when mother and daughter or father and son are together.

Tajikistan is a Muslim country, but a very liberal one at that. They are Ismaili Muslim and do not observe Ramadan. There was no call to prayer in the morning. The beautiful dresses of women might shock the eye, but they did cover their often-attractive figures. On the flip side, tight jeans and form-fitting blouses were not unusual, and a headscarf very optional.

From Turkey and east through the Stans, Monika’s worry of how she must dress and act in these Muslim countries turned out to be unfounded. Always wearing a headscarf and a full-length skirt with a long-sleeve shirt was not necessary, and being able to look men in the eye and shake their hands was not a problem. In fact, as we have done in Mexico and South America for years, when we reach a border check or a police ID stop, I stay in the truck and Monika gets out with our paperwork. The guards, all men, show her ultimate respect and perhaps are even a little thrown off guard that they are dealing with an attractive woman. The “macho man” relation is out the door. It’s kind of funny to watch.

Everyone you see in these photos and all that we met were neat and clean so it is hard to imagine that most did not have running water in their homes nor “bathrooms” as we imagine them. Often the best was an outhouse in the backyard with a “squat hole” and a pitcher of water.

After driving the Wakhan Corridor, we returned via the Pamir Highway back to Khorog to resupply, and that was another adventure.

 

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