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Breakaway State Declares Indpendence from Russia

August 12th, 2008 · 19 Comments

BULLETIN:

The fledgling State of Taxistan was created today due to a clerical error.

On the 12th of August, Team Desertaxi members were denied entry to Russia until Saturday.. They were also denied re-entry to Kazakhstan.

Two of the team members, James Walker and Edward Monckton,  had Ruissian entry visas dated August 14th and 17th, respectively and were not allowed to enter the country. Max Firman, although having a valid visa, has refused to abandon the Team.

Due to Russian intransigence, the Team has been forced to occupy a quarter of an acre of broken land, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by a Kazakh border officer wearing a very large hat.

Russian officials declined requests for water forcing TDT to rely on humanitarian aid being pushed through the barbed wire by passing Mongol Rally Teams..

This has so far included 3 gallons of water, 5 kilos of pasta, a jar of tomato puree, a tennis ball and a black marker pen which the Team will use in the morning to declare the People’s Autocratic Republic of Taxistan, independent. 

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Large holes and Lattes

August 12th, 2008 · No Comments

Yes, we’d been warned the roads in Northern Kazakhstan were bad but nothing could have prepared us. Pot holes were more like meteorite craters and impossible to avoid without going off into the fields. With a sleep deprived Jimmy at the wheel, running only on a boiled egg,  we headed for Semey, our final stop in Kazakhstan.

3 hours later when we arrived, we discovered the results of Jimmy’s chronic inability to weave.

We decided our remaining Kazakh tenge would be better spent on latte’s and bacon then on any repairs so we headed to the Semey’s finest cafe. Then we went to the market for 2 loaves of bread, pasta and more bottles of water. And headed to the Russian border.

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Almaty, Kazakhstan

August 11th, 2008 · No Comments

Monday, August 12th.

We had arrived Sunday afternoon and after exploring less expensive hotels settled on the Kazhol, which was just fine. It was a good to chalk off another border but sad to be there as we lost Charles who had to return to London, as planned, to pursue academics.

 We had planned to stay a day or two to look around but after hearing the Russians  had tightened their borders because of the fighting  with Georgia and knowing the Russian-Mongolian border closes Friday night, we left Almaty at 1100 for the 1200 kilometer drive.

The first 400 kilometers  were easy with some good, recently paved roads. But then came the Kazak steppe, flat with sweeping barren lake beds with roads with potholes which forced us to maneuver the old girl.. Unfortunately, as it was pitch black, the pot holes generally won. We managed to overtake three teams who were having more difficulty then us because of their inferior ground clearance. One team’s rear shock absorber had punched a hole though their wheel arch. We quickly left them behind

At 11pm, too exhausted to go on, we pulled over, at some mystery location.   No signs, one or two lights and a very dim outline of what looked like a single family home. Dawn broke to find Max had parked us beside the village outhouse.  A melange of wooden shacks and concrete monstrosities seemingly populated solely by stray dogs and malnourished livestock. Straight out of Borat.

But enough of that. The big news and bad news for us was the cold.. We had dressed expecting more of the 40 degree Celsius (104) heat and instead it plunged to 13c (55f). It was not nice. Max started behind the wheel but ended up in a sleeping bag outside the car. Edward took the floor covered by a hotel towel  which he swears he’ll return. and Jimmy was part time on the back seat and part time in the hammock.

We have 350 kilometers to the border which we’d like to cross today. then hopefully find a place to stay in Russia….but that’s unlikely.

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A brief Change of Plans

August 10th, 2008 · 1 Comment

Original plans to visit lake Issy Kol in northern Krygyztan have been abandoned after it was discovered that the Russian-Mongolian border closes on the weekends. Where they go is anyone’s guess. Now, however, the intrepid few must dash the length of Kazakhstan to arrive at the border by close of business hours this Friday.

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Kazakh border

August 10th, 2008 · No Comments

Kazakh border, originally uploaded by desertaxi.

Team Desertaxi arriving at the border…

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Kyrgyz Mountains

August 9th, 2008 · No Comments

Kyrgyz Mountains, originally uploaded by desertaxi.

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Yurts, Kyrgyzstan

August 9th, 2008 · No Comments

Yurts, Kyrgyzstan, originally uploaded by desertaxi.

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Swimming in Lake Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan

August 8th, 2008 · No Comments

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Catfish and Kyrgyzstan

August 8th, 2008 · 3 Comments

We spent most of the 7th sightseeing in Samarkand the beautiful but unfortunately also the beleaguered. Beleaguered by tourists in sensible shoes and 3/4 length trousers, we took the decision to move on to the Kyrgyz border via Tashkent and Andijan. We were reliably informed that Tashkent had little to offer the casual visitor and so we pushed on, hoping to make Andijan by nightfall. Once again the roads were against us. We battled through mountains, potholes, police checkpoints until we arrived 200km short of Andijan at midnight with a torrent of steam belching from the engine. It would appear that we have a leak in our radiator although Max refuses to acknowledge it and insists on filling it up every 100 miles. We pulled into what appeared to be a small village on the roadside, populated by enterprising restraunteurs and hoteliers. A very enthusiastic man in traditional Uzbek cap bounded off and returned with five litres of water for the radiator and enquired with wild gesticulation whether we would like any fish for supper. Max and Ed looked at each other skeptically as the nearest body of water was hundreds of miles away. The man thought we hadn’t understood, reached into a cattle trough and produced an enormous, live catfish. He beat it against the side of the trough and then set about cutting up fire wood to cook it with. This took us aback slightly, but we settled down to some midnight melon and catfish sans cutlery. After supper he showed us to our quarters. Jimmy would sleep in the cab in the hammock, Ed in the sitting room on a sofa and Max and Charles were to share a double bed with three other Uzbek fellows. Unrepeatable in Charles’ view but rather enjoyable for Max.

The sun rose over Andijan province and our short slumber was ended. Having paid the man in Jelly beans and dollars we tried to make up for time lost the night before. Finding Andijan was easy, a poker straight road without a turn for 45 miles, finding the Kyrgyz border was less so. When Stalin was reorganising central Asia in the 1930s he must have been blind drunk or blindfolded when drawing up the borders. We had to take a 150 mile detour on the way to Tashkent to avoid  a piece of Kazakhstan that dissected the Expressway into Tashkent. Little pockets of Tajikistan are isolated in Uzbekistan and vice versa. With no Tajik visa and only a single entry into Kazakhstan we had to meander through this political minefield. Jimmy abandoned all efforts with the local languages (if there were any to start with) and began shouting loudly in English and pointing, After a good 90 minutes of terrifying the natives, we finally struck The border just short of Jalalabad. We prepared ourselves for provincial queueing techniques and entered the foray. The Uzbek side was a standard melange of form filling excessive stamping and watching the guard with the least sandwiches to his picnic try and fathom why the word Ireland appears on the front of a British passport. Our Russian didn’t quite stretch to Anglo Irish politics of the last century so he just had to put up with it. The Kyrgyz side proved more original. An enormously fat, jolly looking man sitting in a hut examined our visas and asked us questions on everything from the quality of English vodka to the size of our engine. He then went into a gesticulatory rant about drugs. Max and Ed were in their third minute of protestation and denial before they realised they were being offered drugs. With that offer politely declined we found ourselves in Kyrgyzstan in 39 degree heat (105F) and on one of the great driving roads of the world. Endless hairpins and twists along the flattest tarmac since Serbia, set amongst the frankly breathtaking Kyrgyz mountains. A brief dip in one of the crystal clear lakes broke the heat of the day. Tonight we camp on the shores of the Toktogul resevoir, in order rest the old girls and ourselves for the rigours of the mountains that lie between us and Bishkek.

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Max and Ed in recently acquired Soviet fighter pilot hats

August 6th, 2008 · 1 Comment

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Hot shower and marmite in Samarqand

August 6th, 2008 · 2 Comments

Ed has called in to report a good and interesting rest day in Bukhara with locals full of the explosions that happened on 10 July (www.wikio.com/video/314149) .  The official report is apparently economical with the truth. (search on ‘explosion bukhara’ and see the local blogs).  They have now moved to Samarqand and are in a hotel with hot showers and with another team are eating marmite, that rare and wonderful British delicacy, kindly secreted into Ed’s bag by his girlfriend.

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Bukhara from the Minaret of death

August 5th, 2008 · No Comments

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Things that go bump in the night

August 4th, 2008 · 6 Comments

We know them first hand. But here’s how we got to that. The taxi does not like 50C temperatures (that would be 135 degrees) in the Karokum Desert -and neither do we, so we decided to drive across our second desert at night.  That would be a 646 kilometer journey which was supposed to take 8 hours. Little did we know what we had let ourselves in for.
 
Edward decided that Jimmy should cross the milestone of 5,000 miles behind the wheel, and thus Jimmy’s baptism of fire in the old girl began. Driving on rutted roads in the pitch black with no road or white lane markings from the right hand side and dealing with lunatic Turkmen truck drivers hurtling towards us with their high beams on in the middle of the narrow road. Ed took the suicide seat beside him, manning the spot lights and calling out distances between oncoming traffic and the side of the road. Remember Jimmy is driving a heavily laden London taxi. The roads limited us to 30 miles an hour not the 50 we had allowed. Great chasms openend up in the road without warning. One jolt was so hard it knocked the handbrake on and the front bumper half off. A quick pitstop in the middle of the night and we secured the bumper much to the amusement of our Turkmen guide Angela. Two hours later, near ancient Merv (about half way) our steed bottomed out as our wheels sunk into deep ruts in the tarmac. This sheared the rear bolt holding our sump guard to the chassis, protecting the gearbox.
 
We rattled on past sunrise with Ed and Jimmy doing the bulk of the driving as Max and Charles had been knocked out of service by a dodgy pizza at the Grand Turkmen. Noon on the 4th, 12 hours after we set off Uzbekistan hoved into view.
 
Good news. We got out of Turkmenistan after nine officials on the Turkmen side including four soldiers, one doctor and an Alsatian scrutinized everything from our physical wellbeing (a challenge for Max and Charles to pass) to our endless reams of paperwork. Our chassis number was never checked.
 
We are now spending the night in Bukhara the holy, one of the highlights of the silk road. A quick tour tonight revealed but a few of the 400+ extraordinaryily beautiful mosques nwo flourishing again after the breakup of the U.S.S.R. If the Internet improves we hope to send some pictures tomorrow. We plan on exploring Bukhara further over the next couple of days before moving on to Samarqand.
 
Hope you are enjoying this as much as we are. TDT.

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Walker behind the wheel

August 3rd, 2008 · No Comments

Walker behind the wheel, originally uploaded by desertaxi.

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The Kindness (and madness) of strangers

August 3rd, 2008 · 1 Comment

The long wait for the sun to rise and the border to open was whiled away exchanging cups of Earl Grey for our first of many cups of Iranian brew with the locals. Once the chief of border control had had his cup of tea the gates slowly trundled open, and so with hasty goodbyes we leapt into our taxi and sped through the gap as soon as it was wide enough to accommodate us only to have our enthusiasm curbed three yards later by an extremely irate border guard who decided that Ed, being in a Polo shirt and swimming trunks, was completely inappropriately dressed for his role as driver and dragged him out of the front and threw him the back with the instructions not to get out until his lower legs were covered. Unfortunately the only garment available in the back of the car was Max’s thick woolen Moroccan robe. Feeling suitably out of place as an Englishman dressed as an Arab on the Turko Persian border he sheepishly emerged and headed for passport control.

 It was in this fashion armed with our passports that we stood a little out of place among the huddled masses at the immigration desk. As we reached the front we soon realized that Iranian immigration might not be as straight forward as Turkish emigration. Our Carnet du Passage was, immediately singled out as a particularly suspicious article worthy of the closest scrutiny by at least 12 officials. (Our passports required but two frowns each). Our precious Carnet spent two hours being passed from one person to another without a stamp whilst we sat on a customs desk trying to avoid a mustachioed gentlemen who had very particular views on Anglo-Iranian relations. Ed who had had 4 hours sleep in the last 3 days, became slightly delusional, but in a moment of lucidity said to the room at large. “I have never felt more out of place. I … am an Englishman dressed as an Arab in Persia. With this he fell into a stupor that he did not recover from fully for quite some time. Hours passed trying to avoid political debate with various customs officials until eventually from one of the dark rooms we heard a volley of rubber stamps cascading down upon something that we hoped was our carnet. A voice called “The Fearman”, which Max cautiously hoped was him and entered to darkened room to witness a sight few people will ever see, the final stamping of the Carnet.

This marked our release for the time being from Iranian bureaucracy we dashed between 4 buses and out into Iran. At a town called Maku 10km we were required to arrange our insurance. Unfortunately the daily power cut was scheduled to coincide with our arrival leaving us stranded there for two hours. This gave us time to have lunch, change some money and fraternize with our many admirers. Ed was still in the back, sweltering in the July heat under the thick robe and at the point of asphyxiation. Taking pity on him, Charles got a pair of trousers out of the roof rack and passed them through the window. By this time we now had an audience and Ed was forced to change in the back with an audience of some 10 Iranians, noses pressed against the windows. Trousers on and rehydrated but still feeling “unnatural” to say the least Ed headed of with some sterling to exchange into rials. After furious negotiations with the bank clerk which involved altering the national exchange rate, such a large transaction of $400 was unheard of here and the bank clerk asked if he could have his photo taken with Ed and the several reams of banknotes. Ed returned to the car with enough currency to last us the week/enough loopaper to last us the month.

Our next stop was Tabriz, an ancient capital of Persia 250km further down the road where we received our baptism of fire in Iranian urban driving. We have all experienced tamer rounds of bumper cars. Pulling up at the side of the road to rest the nerves and try and find our bearings, a crowd gathered including a particularly charming teenager who recommended a good hotel in perfect English and gave us directions. We bravely set forth to find the Hotel Senna. By the time we arrived he had run through the backstreets and negotiated us a room for the night and was waiting to help direct us into a parking space he was holding for us.

Another good nights sleep followed in preparation for the road to Tehran. Along the highway to Tehran, just before Qasvin we stopped to buy lunch from a farmer selling fruit on the hard shoulder of the expressway. He invited us into his hut for tea and questioned us unrelentingly in Farsi about everything to do with the Taxi and “Ingilistan” Just as we were leaving another man who spoke English arrived to buy fruit and managed to translate for us. He then invited us to dinner with his family that night when he realised we had nowhere to go in Tehran.

We then went in search for some diesel which thus far we had siphoned off passing truck drivers 20 litres at a time for 5000 rials or about 30p. We did this for two reasons. Firstly as we needed a ration card to buy diesel and secondly diesel stations are particularly dangerous places to be in Iran as is demonstrated in the photograph below.

 In a long queue at a petrol station, a man approached us and informed us that there was no diesel at this station and that he would show us another and that we would be guests at his house that night. We told him we could not come to dinner but would love for him to show us where to get some diesel which he did, and gave us his number saying that he would organise somewhere for us to stay that night while we were at dinner.

Dinner proved to be spectacular. A full Azeri spread eaten on the floor of the apartment in Karaj, just outside Tehran, including saffron ice cream and watermelon followed by chickpea and dill soup with lamb fortified us enormously and is still the best meal we have enjoyed so far this trip. The entire family drove us into Tehran to meet Mashoud, the man at the petrol station who took us to a hotel in the centre of the town where he introduced us to his brother in law who was to be our guide for the next day in Tehran.

The next day was an introduction to Tehrani pedestrianism. There are a few simple rules of the game:

  1. When crossing a one way street., always look both ways.
  2. Never change your mind and turn tail or break into a run this is considered to be a personal challenge of pursuit to the Tehrani drivers who enjoy the panic stricken faces of helpless pedestrians.
  3. When crossing at night a flash of headlights is an acknowledgement of your existence and not necessarily a guarantee of your continued existence on earth.
  4. Traffic lights, lane markings and road signs are mere ornaments to the potholed roads.

These maxims offered by Patricia Baker in our Bradt guide are the only reason that we are writing to you today.

Having survived a day of sightseeing in Tehran we headed south through the desert to Esfahan. The old girl struggled a bit with the heat reducing our top speed to a mere 35 miles an hour. Esfahan with its 40 UNESCO sites was impossible to cover in the 2 and a half days that we had.. We explored various madrasas of equal stunning beauty and Charles got thrashed at backgammon by a sage Iranian in a teahouse looking over the central square in Esfahan that used to be the Shah’s polo pitch.

On the way back from Tehran we turned off the road to explore an oasis 5km north of Natanz. We were not quite prepared for the 1000 year old wattle and daub castle complex that we discovered in this tiny town. An incredible array of ruined hamams, granaries and fortifications that lay untouched and seemingly unnoted by UNESCO.

From Natanz we headed north for the Caspian, arriving in the seaside resort of Chalous (which we discovered in the light of day to be a rather down-market Iranian version of Blackpool) at 3 o’clock in the morning. As the passenger window was stuck down and refused to budge Charles heroically volunteered to sleep in the car while the rest of the team checked into a hotel for a decent night’s sleep.

In the early hours of the next morning Charles was awoken from his dubious slumber by a bizarre and thoroughly out of place American accent. Through groggy eyes he saw a wrinkled face peering through the window jovially telling him that it was illegal to sleep in a car past 7 in the morning. The long and the short of the conversation that followed resulted in Charles being taken to a tea house in the village where they had spent the night. There, after a dozen cups of local tea and a number of tall tales, Charles suddenly realised who he reminded him of. He was an Iranian version of Yoda, but without the powers and quite likely less basis in reality. We then unwittingly bought him lunch before heading for the coast for a swim. We had got but knee deep in the surf before a rather too toned, bronzed and coiffed lifeguard blew furiously on his whistle and ordered us out of the water informing us that the sea was for splashing in and not for swimming. He told us that swimming in the sea was very different from a pool. We thanked him for his concern and informed him that we lived on an island and that we would probably be alright. After a ten minute swim the whistle blew again and this time the police ordered us out of the water. A body had just been washed up.

Slightly damp and smelling of sturgeon we belatedly set off for the Ngad Mountains and Turkmenistan…

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Diligent Irainian Officals Reveal Our Taxi maybe stolen.

August 2nd, 2008 · No Comments

It seemed like an ordinary border crossing  when the Iranian Customs official holding our Carnet de Passage, that lists all our vehicle numbers, came out to inspect our Taxi. After all we were not worried, we had  crossed twenty two borders without a problem. We opened the bonnet, he knelt down and said "The chassis numbers do not match your papers" Stunned and assuming he was after a bribe, we assured him they did. We bent down to look at the numbers, which we had never compared. Unfortunately this is what we saw. 

 

He was right, they did not match. Certain that the Carnet was wrong we brought out the Owner registration, but those numbers didn’t match the car either.

 We were then told to hand over all of our passports and car papers. We knew we were in trouble.

Two hours later while still waiting outside an office for the result to our conundrum. Ed  turned to Max, the official owner of the Taxi, and said "If you had told me a year ago that one day I would be at the Iranian Turkmen border with a stolen London taxi. I wouldn’t have believed it. Max replied  "I wouldn’t have believed it either, but I also knew, if it were true it would be because of you."

Three hours on the Iranians called Max into the office. He emerged  looking shocked, "Just get in the car. I’ll explain in Turkmenistan."

The Iranians didn’t want the problem and the 38 different Turkmen bureaucrats who individually stamped our papers never checked.

So what do we do now, run our chances in the nine border crossings ahead? Or improve our odds by filing off the chassis number and replacing it when we can? Stay tuned. TDT.

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August 1 update

August 1st, 2008 · 3 Comments

The boys have been swimming in the Caspain Sea and will spend tonight in Quchan 100km south of Turkmenistan where Jimmy awaits.  Jimmy awaits with a surprise. Apparently his visa is a tourist visa not a transit visa.  He has been told he has to have an official escort.  How will the boys react?

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Three more photos

July 31st, 2008 · No Comments

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Max

July 31st, 2008 · No Comments

Max, originally uploaded by desertaxi.

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Three photos from our wanderers

July 31st, 2008 · 1 Comment

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