In Soviet Russia, new tyre comes with vodka! Finally found a new tyre shop in Biysk, with the right size (albeit a studded snow tyre, but far better than our current deathtrap spare), and they even gave us a Mongol Rally discount. They proudly had a stack of thank you notes from past teams as far back as 2009, to which we added our own. Craig was the only one with drawing skills so we left drawing the kangaroo to the South African, but still had to remind him how many stars on the flag! We're not sure why, probably because it's Russia, but the tyre also came with a bottle of vodka, bargain!
We've lost count of the times the change in countryside has amazed us, and the Altai region in Siberia did it again, following a river through rugged mountains and remote towns Russia is definitely more modern though, with most places accepting our cards (first time in weeks), and a little more food options to choose from. It was definitely a place we wanted to come back to, it was a bit of a pity to drive through it in just a single day, like Kyrgyzstan.
Made it to the border around 9, and while Steve finally got to practice some useful German (Russians learn it at school apparently), there were no less than 10 teams camped out, including 5 tagalong drunk Russians and some Mongolians who'd joined the party. Because we'd flown quickly through Russia, we had jumped the teams we'd been seeing recently, and all but one of the teams we hadn't seen since Czech Republic.
One of the best (and coldest!) nights of the trip so far, drinking solidly into the night around a campfire, Russian stew and vodka, and sharing war stories with some new faces. Despite the weather, one of the Russians seemed to think that pants were optional and that all the girls there required rather close hugs all the time, but it provided plenty of entertainment!
Saturday 16 August - Siberia
It was a couple of hours to the Russian border including breakfast and a few fruitless stops for a replacement tyre, then another 3.5 hours of not much more than waiting around at the border, and we were in Russia!
Later than planned, and not exactly looking forward to a non-stop drive to the Mongolian border we set off into our second last country. Just one border crossing to go! After dry and dusty Kazakhstan, Russia was instantly green, with forests, lakes, and sunflower fields, still plenty of Ladas though...
Over dinner we discovered the Mongolian border was closed on Sunday, which meant we could actually sleep rather than driving all night, but that also cuts us to five days flat, including border crossing, through Mongolia. From our friends in Bag of Cats (Leah, Ian, Xav) who did the rally last year, 5 days is the bare minimum for the Southern Route through Mongolia!
We pulled into a truck stop motel in Biysk around 1:30am for a much needed sleep, though not before a random guest decided to buy us a couple of drinks from the bar because we were Australian.
Friday 15 August - Kazakhstan
Early start, we were on the road by 8, along some of the worst roads we’d seen yet, though a slow leak from one of the tyres was a sign of things to come...
Our 4-car convoy led by Norwegians in a beasty beetle stopped for lunch halfway to Semey, then rolled on, eventually picking up a fifth member, more Swedes in another Corsa. It never got old, the beeping and waving whenever we ran into another team on the road.
Just 60km from Semey, on a particularly rough dirt section of highway, we discovered our slow leaking tyre had started to leak somewhat faster - it had been shredded and was now just a few threads of rubber clinging onto the rim! We changed it out for our only spare, and gingerly made it into Semey, where we bought a well used tyre, probably the worst condition we’d ever seen, but it was marginally better than nothing.
We caught up with the crowd in Semey for beers, and the 4 Wheelies showed up as well, for a solid little session in what seemed like a lively town, especially for one still quite radioactive after being near the Soviet Union’s primary nuclear weapons test site! From 1949 to 1989 the Polygon test site 150km from Semey was home to nearly 500 tests though there was a distinct lack of people with extra eyes or gills.
With help from some enthusiastic locals, we ended up at a night club a little out of town where we were very much the main attraction (although we've become somewhat used to the staring everywhere we go).
Thursday 14 August - Kazakhstan
Ouch...Brooke and Steve woke up to the apartment owner patiently waiting for us, and Craig eventually showed up a bit later, so no search party was required. We THINK we all had a good night!
On the road much later than planned, but reaching the Russian border in two days was still realistic, and we pointed the Micra north along roads a little better than expected.
We ran into UK team Fox Force 5 at a dinner stop, and they were heading to meet up with some of the Swedes and Norwegians who were camping 150km up the road. It was already 9pm, so we decided to tag along, arriving around midnight. Camping involved applying half a bottle of insect repellant and still being attacked by the biggest mosquitos we’d ever seen! At least, as Brooke said, these ones were big and slow and easy to kill, even if it did take 10 minutes of team efforts to kill all the ones in our tent before going to sleep!
Wednesday 13 August - Kyrgyzstan
Breakfast at the hotel, then on to the Kazakhstan border, which was the busiest border we'd seen for a while. They split drivers and passengers, and while Craig and Steve got through in about 40 minutes, Brooke had a tough couple of hours having the car unpacked and checked twice, and the officers at one point throwing paperwork back at him because it wasn’t the original, and he hadn't filled things out correctly (it was all in Cyrillic!). Needless to say he'd earned a beer for the drive to Almaty!
Similar to in Kyrgyzstan, our combined intelligence forgot about insurance at the border, although luckily it was sorted easily enough 240km later in Almaty...this wasn't the place to be uninsured!
Instead of pushing on, we decided we had time for a night out, as we've had time for little but driving lately.
Hotels in the city seemed expensive, and just as we were about to settle for a run-down single room with only a double bed, a local lady stopped to ask about our car...as proof you so should ALWAYS talk to strangers, she told us about apartment rentals, and shortly after we were settling into a huge two bedroom apartment with kitchen, washing machine (definitely needed that!), and TV with Russian music videos, what more could we want? It was cheaper than the cheapest hotel too ;)
A bottle of Kazakhstan's best and cheapest $6 vodka kicked things off, and after heading out we met a local, Tim, who’d visited Australia, spoke great English, and enjoyed vodka shots and good rum with his Russian mate, so we kicked on to a club and that’s when details got a little hazy...
Tuesday 12 August - Kyrgyzstan
Started the day with breakfast at the nearby bazaar, Steve found a phone store that printed our freshly emailed V5 registration on glossy paper (looks legit!), and we headed to the border. We actually decided that since the Adventurists had told us that the rally is impossible without a V5, that we should try not to use it anyway, just as a bit more of a challenge.
Leaving Uzbek took an hour or so, and after so many border crossings, they were the first to see through the sock covering our gearstick! Good laughs all round, and on to the toughest border yet - Kyrgyzstan! Their border was two huts and a metal bar with a stop sign over the road - it took 15 minutes to process both teams and they gave each team a melon as a gift. That's how we like border crossings!
We stopped at beautiful Toktogul lake for a swim/shower and mingling. Had to say bye to the Mongoleers, as they have much more time than us, and push on to the capital, Bishkek, driving solo again.
This place though...this country has blown us away. Seriously spectacular sheer mountains with patches of snow, whitewater rivers, green grass and herds of horses, goats and sheep. It just made us want to come back in winter with snowboards, and again in the summer with bikes. It was actually cold up here at 3100m too! We also had our first encounter with the 4 Wheelies, a UK team who have rolled their car, broken an ankle and are still going strong!
Plans to go out in Bishkek (which has an epic reputation) faded unfortunately when we got in around 11 and realised how tired we were, so off to bed without dinner!