Continuing, the worst guide in the world
When you spend most of your time in Tehran, getting drunk at your guides apartment with his mates, then you should wander if Iran's capital has anything to offer, and to be frank, no, not really.
You could however go to the top of the Milad tower, which at 1,427 feet is Iran's tallest building. There's plenty to do and on a clear day or night, the view is indeed breathtaking. That is of course if you can see through the density of the cities smog.
Let's not forget, Iran has some of the most amazing sights anywhere, even if the food is like eating a 200 page manual on 1,001 uses for cement.
Travelling overland has many appeals for me, learning different languages, experiencing other cultures and see sights that many only dream of. But driving though deserts has a special place in my soul. I am not one for busyness or the hussle and bussle of the city. It's the eerie emptiness of deserts, the feeling of complete solitude and freedom that make them appealing to me. The ever changinglandscapes and unforgiving terrain that somehow give them a romance in so many stories.
The Lut desert in the Kerman province of Iran, covers around 52000km². Often it records the highest temperatures on earth, so take a fan. You can go on 4x4 tours here or do just as we did and go in a LDV maxus. We were fully prepped and stocked however, as the likelihood of you getting bogged down in sand is 85 percent and if you only have the shirt on your back and a pair of flip flops, then the fat lady will be a-singing.
Crossing into the land with no smiles
The border between Iran and Turkmenistan was as empty as the Karakum desert. The seemingly eternal border entry, into a country with on average of only 5,000 visitors per year, was a mind numbingly tedious experience of searches and questions of 'Mr, do you have a gun.' But what else would you expect of a country, whose president has a golden statue of himself that rotates to face the sun and who also wrote and composed its new national anthem.
The former soviet union province is almost entirely covered by the Karakum desert. So if you don't like sand in every orifice on a constant basis, then you buggered, mate. It's certainly not the largest country in the world, in fact there are 51 other countries larger, but it does have some fascinating offerings.
The capital, Ashgabat, immediately made an impact on us. The white marble buildings, ultra smooth roads and a policeman on every corner. We stayed in a splendid hotel for the price of a packet cigarettes. It had a nightclub beneath, where all the local ladies of the night would let their hair down and for two bob anything else you could think of.
There are also other impressive sights such as the Gypjak Mosque, Ashgabat National Museum of History, the Monument Arch of Neutrality, independence park and even a carpet museum, yes, that's right, a carpet museum.
As you leave Ashgabat and make your way in to the desert, life becomes few and far between. There are limited roads you can take heading north, so few you can count it on one finger.
The one must, for any self respecting tourist is the door to hell. You drive until you reach railroad tracks under a bridge. Then turn right into the desert heading for a no signed place called Darvaza, where only a huge hole in the ground that's on fire exists. There was a guy, who worked in a hut under the bridge, who would call his mate to take you in his Russian 4x4 van. Worth it because, yes, it's a giant hole that's on fire, but it's a vast desert with dunes and bright sunlight, and he will take you straight there. At night the light from the huge fire is easier to spot than an American in China.
Legend has it, that in 1,973 the Russians were digging for gas and hit a gas pocket and of course, if you were Russian you too, you would have logically set it alight to burn off the excess gas. To this day the gas is still burning and makes for a good photo as you can see in the title photo of this article.
The Strangeness just keeps going
Having all the paperwork for the vehicle in my name was certainly not an honour. It meant that I was the one who was responsible for the vehicle through all the border crossings. This meant I was always alone with the vehicle as it got searched inside and out and anything that was wrong, out of place or smuggled into a country illegally, I was the one who was interrogated.
It started off so well in Uzbekistan. Although the borders commanding officer and I spoke totally different languages, we were getting on like a house on fire. Even hitting golf balls over the fence into Turkmenistan, just for the crack as we laughed like hyenas on Nitrous oxide. It was a great border crossing. He even draw me a map to get to our destination.
Has he gave me the signal to put our stuff back in the van to say the search was over, he took a brown paper bag from the passenger door and casually opened it. Within a few seconds there were guards everywhere pointing rifles at me. My teammates were brought out and got the same treatment. Screaming at us in what I presumed was Uzbek or even Russian to sit, I think.
They took us in an old truck and put us in this rundown jail block. After a while, we were asked to send out two of us to explain why we were holding an English illustration of the Shia Quran. Seeing that the book was Matt's, we teamed him up with Terry, who was the most argumentative of us and stressful, we had a plan.
I certainly wasn't against Matt for bringing the book, as I was looking forward to reading it myself. Learning about cultures that make up our race can only be respectful and knowledgeable.
Terry, well, he's my older brother, never been a big traveler and it showed over time as the heat and tension that often comes with overland travelling started to take its toll. He was, however, very resourceful when it comes to repairing vehicles. I always remember helping as a young kid, fix and bodge his old bangers, he would find on top a scrap heap somewhere, back in the 80s.
Although our plan to argue our way out of trouble seemed a last hope, it did have a major floor. The translator they got spoke incredibly poor English. We would have been better off using pictionary.
I asked a guard if I could help in anyway to solve this matter and was allowed to enter the interrogation room. The commanding office seemed so happy to see me, my friend he said with excitement in his voice has he shook my hand wholeheartedly. I thought to myself, "the plan works," he must of been so relieved to be away from the relentless bombardment of unreasoning from Terry and Matt that he remember how well we got on before all the book nonsense. Within 10 minutes we signed a declaration and gave an apology and we left, fast.
Let that not put you off of Uzbekistan, simply don't carry any holy books into any highly religious countries and you'll be fine.
All it takes is a few feet
The roads haven't been good since Turkey and Uzbekistan is a mixture of good and bad. One minute you're enjoying a relatively flat dual carriageway and then, screeeech to a holt, as it just instantly turns into to what can only be described as a field that's been used for missile testing. There is a bonus however, you become more aware because it happens, a lot.
A semi famous place to go and see here, is the Aral sea. It was mainly desert due to diversion tactics by the soviets, but is now recovering. It does have boats and old buildings that got stranded when the sea dried up, just laying scattered around the desert landscape of what was once the fourth largest inland sea.
As we got further in to Uzbekistan we could clearly feel the difference in cultures. All it takes is a few feet of border and the change in people is remarkable. I mean no disrespect to the Turkmens, but the only people who gave us a smile were the ones we helped in the middle of the desert who had run out of fuel. Talk about a laugh in a lifetime country. The French made them look polite. However, we were now in a place were they see people as friends and not their mortal enemy.
We had just gotten through another checkpoint, which are pretty common place in central Asia and realised we only had enough fuel to get us halfway to the next town, which was 40 miles away. Here's an important note: if you're planning a silk road journey or any developing country trip. Check to see if diesel is plentiful and not restricted to use, like here in Uzbekistan.
Like everything else though, just focus on how much you need it and it will be provided for. As we were sitting on a step of some sort of eating establishment, out of nowhere came a young man, who simply said, you need diesel? Yes, can you get some for us? Yes, give me jerry cans and $10. Look, what have you got to lose, two jerry cans and $10. Either way we weren't going anywhere. Off the young man went. Just 10 minutes past and back he came with two full jerry cans of good clean diesel and two dollars. Needless to say his tip was two dollars and we added an extra $10 for good Karma.
Over the next 20 clicks, strangely enough, there were people waving us into their property to sell us bootleg diesel.
There is always a way, you just need to keep looking and then eventually, it will find you.
Sometimes, the hosts are just too friendly. I don't mean that in a, "if I put my pink frock on, will you call me Shirley" sort of way. I mean he kept us up all night, drinking, laughing, singing and playing guitars with his extremely heavy drinking mates, sort of way. Who insisted we join them in toasting everything that as ever existed in the world.
It had been a long day and many miles of rough roads were covered and we needed to rest. In the middle of nowhere this restaurant appeared. The owner was polite and laughing with us lot. He invited us to sleep in the yurt, that was at the front of the bright blue spaghetti western looking building that stood in a lifeless semi-desert, that housed the Restaurant, and his families rooms.
The toasting consisted of a bowl of super tough, blow your balls off vodka and down it in one, somehow. It's no surprise then, that we sang 'til our throats were sore and collapsed outside our yurt.
The next morning, we we said our goodbyes and left our new friends to their home made from recycled plastic bottles in the middle of the Kyzylkum Desert. We were heading towards Samarkand South east of the country, known for its mosques and mausoleums, and was an important trade site of the silk road. Personally, I'm a bit of a rummager and for me the best bit of this vibrant, ancient city was the market or the Siyob Bazaar. Filled with colour, energy and an atmosphere. Trading everything from cotton to fruit, that gives you a feel of what it was like in times long before it was conquered by Alexander the great in 329 BCE.
As we drove in to Tashkent there were two obvious differences with Samarkand. First the size and how more modern it was. I think this is due to its history of destruction by Genghis Khan in the 13 century and then by the major earthquake in 1966 that destroyed most of the city. As cities go this is one I actually didn't mind being in.
Travelling into Kazakhstan was very easy and problem free, a real first for us. It's a huge country, around the size of most of Europe with a lot of soviet history.
What we saw was stunning countryside and lots of beautiful women. What's that about? The comedian, Baron Sasha Cohen's alter ego, Borat, couldn't have been more wrong, even about his sister being, "second best prostitute in all of Kazakhstan." Even Jagshemash is Hebrew or Polish that means, how are you. It doesn't stop you using every five minutes though.
Almaty, although not the capital, it is the largest city here and I liked it. There's plenty to do and eat and even a cable car ride to the top of Kok-Tube Hill, where it seemed all the entertainment was, even a crazy mechanical bull that was harder to get on, than it was to stay on.
We decided to kriss-kross from Lake Balkhash, one of the great lakes of the world to the west side of the Altai mountains. It may take a few extra days, but so worth it for the scenery alone. We done this until we reached Semey, our Russian border crossing. Until 2007 is was known as Semipalatinsk, a very soviet looking, run down town. Which is understandable due to the fact that from 1949 to 1989 some 456 nuclear tests had taken place just 93 miles west of here.
Like most of the border crossings on this route, we were the only ones crossing. But with the amount for paperwork that goes with bringing a vehicle through central Asia, it's never going to be a breeze, but into Russia we entered and the long drive towards Mongolia.
Cow ate our fire
Getting to Mongolia through Russia isn't as straight as a map would have you think. On a map it's just there. However, there is no border crossing further down in Kazakhstan, although it show one on a map. So Semey it had to be. It meant a 500 mile drive north to Barnaul and then back south to the Mongolian crossing.
On the way down south towards Mongolia awaited an incredible drive through the Russian Altai mountains. Winding scenic roads that went on for two days. We set up camp in a huge valley next to the Katun river, which was truly serene. The next morning was a pleasure to wake up. We re-lit the fire, put the kettle on and washed it the pristine river.
The last thing you expect when enjoying your morning cup of tea is a cow to come up with no introduction and eat your fire. I know they like to get calcium, potassium and other elements from the ashes, that it might have a deficiency off, that will help its gut for instance but at least wait until it was out.
Yet again a border crossing that was a breeze. It took longer to get from the exit crossing in Russia to the Mongolian post, than it did to get through the actual border patrols, around 22 miles of no man's land. Which is the land between two countries connecting borders.
Finally our destination country and where we all wanting to experience the most.
However you pictured Mongolia, whether you see it on TV in a documentary or in a travel magazine, it is exactly as you think it would be.
Roads of any kind are few and far between and what there are don't last long until they are either dirt tracks or mud tracks. Most of the time you create your own paths. We drove for four hours through a dried up river bed because it was pointing in the right direction. That and we couldn't find a way on to the bank.
These roads have killed more cars than Skoda. If your not bogged down in the multitude of swamps, your obliterating your suspension in potholes bigger than King Kong's first dump of the day and I've not even mentioned the eternal washboard roads that will destroy anything else that's left of the vehicle you've just travelled 13,000 miles in just to get here.
If you are heading towards the countries capital, Ulaanbaatar, there are two ways to get there. North and South. North, no. Why? There are no roads at all, just hell. South, well at least there are a few miles of roads that will make you feel like an Irishman smoking his first cigarette after he's been locked in a room with Piers Morgan for a day.
The roads are extremely tedious but what a drive. You'll pass the odd town where you can stop for a bite to eat. See plenty of Golden eagles, Yaks and wild horses. You will however drive for days without seeing anyone or anything that doesn't grow out of the ground and from nowhere in the distance a Ger will come into view. A Ger is the Mongolian version of a yurt. A home that can be moved around and used by Nomads.
We were lucky enough to spot one in particular that we parked close too. Well, about a 800 yards from so we didn't seem threatening. As we put up our tents a women and her grandson with their dog, got closer. They were out collecting sheep droppings for fuel. The dog came up to us as friendly as you like and got the friendliest reception from us all. This lead the woman to come over to offer a greeting.
Her grandson was eight years old and for some reason we had a bottle of bubbles that we gave him to play with. As we gained their trust the woman invited us to their home. We finished pitching our tents and sorting ourselves out and then heading over to our new neighbours. As guest we took a lot of gifts with us that we thought they may find useful. Some books for the grandson, kitchenware, first aid kits, some clothes and a pair of binoculars. It was the old man who loved the binoculars, which was ironic considering he had a glass eye and cataracts in the other.
They fed us with, I'm just gonna say meat. Then shared a bowl of "mares milk." First round, OK not to bad. Second round, not so good. Third round, cringely horrid. Fourth round, well, you get the picture. Well, it's secreted by female horses, during lactation to feed their foals. It's rich in Vitamin C, whey protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids. All I know is it taste like fermented sweaty socks and gets you drunk faster than a Scotsman at hogmanay. After a night of drinking vodka in their GER, we said goodbye to our unforgettably friendly hosts and hit the road towards Ulaanbaatar.
The Mongol rally is an event run by The Adventurist. A company that set up and host many kinds of adventures around the world. The Mongol rally is their longest running event and still attracts the biggest amount of participants. You have to drive from London to a Siberian city called Ulan Ude in a shit, under powered car. It's very appealing because it does test you and you will break down but you will improve yourself and the way you see things. Alternatively, the Mongolia charity rally is the same but most who enter, take ambulances, fire trucks and an whole array of service vehicles. Having to dig out vans and trucks is more of a challenge, although you can live in a bit more space.
If you want to test your resolve by driving overland, these are a brilliant way to go.
We came across a few mongol ralliers on our way. Mainly because they were unprepared and underskilled in situations of breaking down in the Gobi Desert. Yeh, learn to be resourceful but planning and preparation is the best commodity and resourcefulness you can have. We spent lot of time pulling them out of bogs, fixing their broken suspensions and torn off exhaust pipes.
Most of our time spent in Mongolia and throughout the trip, was spent wild camping. It's particularly easier in Mongolia because of the vast emptiness. We stayed in one town Uyanga, a small town, although very large as Mongolian towns go. I remember how cold it was even though we were in southern Mongolia, in August. But snow fell to the rough gravel ground that surrounded the area nonetheless.
The first thing we saw before spotting Ulaanbaatar was the dense smog that hung over it. Then we were here, 13,000 miles of harsh rough deserts, Mountains passes, massive empty plains, corruption and Hostility. We mainly made friends and experienced great adventure, cultures and nature. But more surprisingly we made it in an ex-postal van with more miles on the clock than Katie Price, with only one broken rear suspension leg and two brake calipers that had be battered off by the endless washboard roads.
It was rush hour in the capital and took us a further two hours to get to our meeting place with the charity organisers who we were raising money for. Then we were done. We found a good hostel and hit the bars. Over the next two days my team had left to take they flights back to Blighty. I however, was on another mission. Before giving the van over to the charity to use as a minibus, I first wanted to see more of Mongolia. After a week of touring the countryside I headed back to Ulaanbaatar to take the Trans Mongolian and Transerian express To Moscow.
I will always see this journey as one of my biggest learning adventures, that gave a different experience every single day.
Thank you to all the people we met, that made this adventure of a lifetime into a life changing adventure.