“There is no petrol in Uzbekistan”

Well, according to the Lonely Planet and Google, there is petrol… but it is in Tashkent (the capital), a 15-hour, 1,100km drive East, and not on our planned route. Not much good when you arrive in Nukus in the North West of Uzbekistan, and discover there is not a single working petrol station in the entire region.

Luckily we’d filled Martha up in Turkmenistan, just before we crossed over the border. Not so much because we were aware of the chronic lack of petrol, more because, at about 6p per litre, petrol in Turkmenistan was unbelievably cheap, and we didn’t think it could get much cheaper.

We arrived in Nukus in the late afternoon, and having had no wifi for the last few days, relied on our guidebook to take us to a reasonably priced hotel. Nukus wasn’t a particularly attractive city, but it was just over the border and a good place to base ourselves for a little detour up north to visit what used to be the Aral Sea.

We were staying with two other teams who had followed us to Nukus from the border, and decided to go out for dinner together at a restaurant recommended by the hotel. The food was quick, tasty and filling… but then we got the bill. At the equivalent of $35 for six people (main courses, sides, and many drinks), it wasn’t exactly expensive, but the restaurant would only accept local currency, and we didn’t have enough.

This is the second problem with Uzbekistan: not only is there no straightforward way to get petrol, there is also no easy way to get money. Hotels and hostels will ONLY accept payment in US dollars, while most other places will ONLY accept payment in local currency (the Uzbek Som). Nowhere accepts credit cards. You need to carry both US dollars and Uzbek Som with you at all times. THere are also no working ATMs (or at least, not in the places we’ve visited), and no official currency exchange offices. If you want local money, you have to buy it on the black market. The Uzbek Som is also a bit ridiculous: the “official” rate is about 4,000 som to the dollar, and the black market rate (really the only rate, since there are no or limited “official” ways to change money) is about 8,000 som to the dollar. Either way, we struggled to change more than $20 at a time, because no one had enough notes of the local stuff to change any more.

When you change $10 in Uzbek Som and get so many notes they won’t fit in your wallet

So, faced with a restaurant bill we couldn’t pay, Shane and I traipsed around Nukus looking for someone who might change our dollars. We looked for a bank, or ATM of any kind. There were banks, but they were closed, and an ATM was an alien concept. We looked for a hotel, and found a couple, but both refused to do a deal. Eventually we met a local man in a hotel lobby who helped us out and gave us a decent rate. We went back to the restaurant, and triumphantly handed over a giant wad of cash to pay the bill.


The next day we drove 200km north of Nukus to visit Moynaq, and a big desert which used to be home to the world’s fourth largest lake – the Aral Sea.

Moynaq was once a busy port city on the edge of the Aral Sea. Its main industries were fishing and canning, and it was home to tens of thousands of people. In the early 1960s, the Soviet government decided to divert the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals and cotton. Many of the irrigation canals were poorly built, so lots of water leaked and evaporated. The Aral Sea began to shrink. By 2007, the Sea was only 10% of its original size.

The shrinking Aral Sea: from a massive lake in 1960 to a sliver of salty water today

This has been a disaster for Moynaq. The fishing and canning industries have collapsed, leading to an economic disaster. The area is severely polluted by agricultural chemical runoff and toxic chemicals left behind as the sea has shrunk. There are frequent toxic dust storms, and the weather has become more extreme. All in all, it’s not a great place to be.

When we arrived in Moynaq, we found a ghost town, a monument to what used to be the Aral Sea, and a vast desert. There was no water – the Sea was now nearly 200km away – but there were seashells in the desert, and a sort of ship graveyard. A number of old, rusty ships were still sitting in what used to be the sea. Now they were stuck in the desert. We explored the old seabed and the ships, and experienced the extreme weather conditions the town faces first hand – the temperature was the hottest it has been on our trip so far, and after days of 40+ degrees in Turkmenistan, that is saying something.

The ship graveyard in Moynaq where the sea used to be

Shane exploring an old ship left in the desert

Georgia playing in one of the boats

Sea shells from the old seabed


We arrived back in Nukus in the evening, and realized we had a problem. We had used up a large amount of our petrol, and had no way to get more. There were lots of fuel stations in Nukus, but they only sold propane or methane gas. We did some research back at our hostel, and quickly discovered that there were not likely to be any working petrol stations outside of Tashkent. We needed to buy some “black market” petrol.

Luckily, the lady who worked in our hostel said her mother could help us. At 5,000 Uzbek Som (about 50p) per litre, she warned us that it was “very expensive”, but compared to petrol prices back home, this seemed alright to us. The next morning, an older lady joined Shane in Martha and they drove a good 10km to a house on the side of the road, and bought some dodgy looking petrol which came in some five litre water bottles. It wasn’t ideal, but we didn’t have much choice.

With Martha full of something, we continued with our journey. Our next stop was Khiva: a small, old Silk Road town with some very beautiful and well preserved architecture. We wandered around the old buildings and watched the sunset from an ancient watch tower, looking over the town.

Exploring Khiva

Sunset in Khiva

Pretty night time lights in Khiva

The next morning we repeated the search for money and petrol. This time, I was able to change money with our hotel and Shane went on a short drive with the hotel owner’s son to get some petrol. “Do you want the good fuel or the bad fuel?”, he asked. “Good fuel! Good fuel!”, we replied. It was probably still pretty bad fuel, although things could have apparently been worse.

Loaded up with more elusive petrol, we drove to Bukhara – Central Asia’s holiest city – which felt more real and lived in than Khiva. The centre was a bit of a building sight but we had a relaxing day off wandering the sights and soaking up the sun. Eventually we found Lyabi-Hauz, a cool oasis with a big pool of water in the heart of the city, and a number of other Mongol Rally teams.



Our last stop in Uzbekistan was Samarkand. Another town filled with impressive buildings and minarets. We stayed in a dilapidated and interesting guesthouse. The owner was very friendly and helpful, insisting we have some tea and some peaches as soon as we arrived, and then insisting we have some melon. The fruit was never ending. When we went through the usual routine of asking about petrol and money, he went out of his way to help us – driving us all over the city looking for petrol. Eventually we found some petrol and some local money. We had enough supplies to take us to Tajikistan, where we hoped that paying for things and giving Martha a drink wouldn’t be quite so challenging.

Registan, Samarkand

Of course, Uzbekistan had a couple more twists in store for us before we could continue on our way. The closest border between Samarkand in Uzbekistan and Dushanbe in Tajikistan turned out to be closed, so we had to drive a less direct route – through some more desert and some mountains – down to the border with Afghanistan. We managed to find a shortcut which saved us some time, but were stopped again and again by Police. The last time we were stopped, the police officer told us the road we had chosen was closed. We would need to drive 100km back to the main road, and then go the long way round. All in all, this would probably add an extra six hours and 300km to our journey. We’d started at 6am and it was already 3.30pm. We were tantalizingly close to the border. After much toing and froing, eventually the police officer let us continue along the route we had planned. It turned out there were no road closures, and no reason why we needed to turn back. Was the police officer confused? Was he having a joke?

We had no idea, but after another painful experience trying to get through border control, and Martha’s engine starting to make a strange noise because of the dodgy fuel she’d been drinking, we were ready to say goodbye to Uzbekistan. Despite its beautiful architecture and very industrious and helpful people, we were dreaming of a land with readily available, high quality (or at least medium quality) petrol, and cash machines. Will we find it in Tajikistan? We’ll find out!

(Probably not).



The balcony of Europe

The Romanian beach party was chaos. Of course, I was in bed by midnight (and despite drinking 12 free beers and some free shots of the local liquor, Shane wasn’t that far behind). But for other teams it was a messy all-nighter, culminating in the loss of important belongings (phones, wallets, passports, inflatable couches…)

Things that got lost at the Romanian beach party

The next day we were soon on the road to Bulgaria and to Turkey. Shane was probably still too drunk to drive, so I drove the long stretch on a windy, bumpy, one-car-at-a-time-only road through Bulgaria. Many, many hours later, we reached the Bulgaria-Turkey border crossing. This was fairly straightforward – I bought some expensive car insurance (our policy was only valid in Europe, so this is going to be a common occurrence from now on), we managed to skip the baggage check (a border guard took one look at our car full of stuff and obviously couldn’t be bothered unpacking it all and checking it, so waved us straight through), and another border guard stopped us right at the last minute…. to ask if he could sign Martha.

As we carried on down the road towards Istanbul, things took a downward turn. By this point, I’d been driving for around nine hours. We had only stopped to get petrol for Martha and to cross the border. I’d had nothing to eat, and very little sleep due to the noise from the crazy beach party the previous night. I needed a break. I asked Shane if he could take over the driving, and he gently pointed out that we had a little problem. I had managed to buy car insurance for myself (and for Martha) but not for Shane. I would have to drive the rest of the way, and all day the next day, and all day the following day, until we made it out of Turkey.

Then, things got a little worse. Having left the EU, we could no longer roam the internet for free, so were relying on a free app with the maps we needed downloaded onto it as our only navigation tool. This did not work very well, and we quickly found ourselves going on a big toll road in the wrong direction. We had no idea how to pay the toll, and there was no way off the road for the next 20 or 30 kilometers. We stopped at a petrol station to see if we could find out how to pay the toll (answer unclear, we ended up buying a special sticker for the car which acted as a kind of smart-toll-ticket… we loaded some money on to it but never really found out how it worked or if we paid enough). We also asked a nice man who spoke English whether the insurance I’d bought covered Shane to drive. He offered some conflicting information (no, the insurance didn’t cover Shane, but it did cover nine other drivers??), but reassured us that: “This is Turkey, so… of course you can drive. The Police can’t even read this.” Lovely. The man obviously felt sorry for us, as he also tried to pay our toll, which was incredibly generous. But of course we could not let him pay for our mistakes, so we thanked him and were on our way.

But on our way to where, exactly? We had found a potential campsite on the outskirts of Istanbul, but when we finally made it there (late at night), it didn’t seem like a safe or good camping spot at all. We attempted to navigate towards an alternative campsite (using our rubbish app), but ended up on a terrible pot-hole filled road, driving at snail speed, and worrying that the campsite would be full and / or closed by the time we arrived. We pulled into a restaurant to ask for some advice, ended up staying for a delicious meal, and becoming the star attraction as we made several new friends who wanted to sign Martha and hear about our journey.

A selfie with our new friends


Signing Martha

They also told us that there was nowhere safe to camp in the area, and suggested we head on another 30kms to the beach. Of course, we got lost, so they sent someone after us who made sure we followed him to the main road that led to the beach. Well, we still managed not to get to the beach, and instead pulled into a truck stop not far away from the centre of Istanbul and attempted to sleep in the car.

This turned out to be a mistake. We have a lot of stuff in the car: camping gear, food, bags, and general stuff. There is no room to sleep. We managed to clear the back seat but it was still very squashy and uncomfortable. It was also boiling hot – like being in a sauna. So, I opened the back window a tiny bit. This also turned out to be a mistake. After a sleepless night trying to get comfortable, panicking about local axe murderers and generally having a terrible time, I woke up to find I had been bitten around 30 times by mosquitoes in the night. I also woke Shane up at around 5am screaming because I thought someone was trying to get in through the open rear window. That was a serious Georgia-meltdown.

But, hoping that things could only get better from here, and vowing to find a proper campsite for the next night, we drove away from Istanbul at about 5.15am and so made it all the way to Samsun, around 800kms away, by the afternoon. We did find a proper campsite, and had a lovely evening drinking tea with some local residents and swapping stories (mostly about mechanical engineering).

Another drive day to Batumi in Georgia followed. The border crossing was a bit chaotic and took around two and a half hours, but we made it through without complications (although also without  car insurance, which is apparently not compulsory in Georgia) and stayed for two nights in a hostel to have a break from driving and a good night’s sleep in a real bed. We had a lovely day in Batumi going up the alphabetic tower, exploring the beach and chilling out in the old town.

Alphabetic tower, Batumi

Sunset looking over the Black Sea, Batumi

The following day we drove to Tbilisi, and had a very pleasant afternoon wandering around the old streets. Both Shane and I have enjoyed Georgia more than anywhere else so far (and not just because everything has my name on it).

It is like a hidden treasure, tucked away by the Black Sea, not quite in Europe, and not quite out of it – on the “balcony of Europe”, so to speak, with a unique identity and culture. Tbilisi seemed like a lovely destination for a weekend away. The only downside is that driving around is a nightmare. Cars do not have to have insurance, be road worthy in any way, and apparently do not have to follow normal road rules. That includes speed limits, traffic lights, stopping at junctions, giving way at roundabouts… just, you know, everything (Shane has written more about driving in Georgia here).

Tbilisi, Georgia

After another day of driving and another border crossing, we have now arrived in Baku in Azerbaijan. Rising out of the desert landscape, Baku is a strange mix of old and new, Asian and European. We spent the day walking the streets of the old city, visiting the Palace of the Shirvanshah’s, admiring the Flame Towers and attempting to visit the museum of miniature books (which is sadly closed on a Thursday).

Magic carpets, Baku, Azerbaijan


Sand artwork, Baku, Azerbaijan

We’ve driven around 5,000 kilometers now, and while we are still in Eurovision territory, the landscape is changing fast. Azerbaijan is flat and immense, and the heat is intense. We’ve also caught our first glimpse of the Caspian Sea. We’re hanging out on the balcony of Europe, about to (hopefully, ferry permitting) step off into the great unknown that is Central Asia.






The taste of freedom

We have now been on the road for five days. We’ve covered 3,000 kilometres and have reached the Black Sea at the edge of Europe. We’ve started to adjust to living out of our car, sleeping in our tent, changing currencies and time zones and stopping for petrol multiple times a day. We’ve also started to enjoy our newfound sense of freedom.

From the Dover-Calais ferry, we drove East (common theme) through France to reach a lake in South East Belgium where I’d researched a potential wild camping spot. We had planned to wild camp most nights during the rally – both to save money and to give ourselves maximum freedom and flexibility, but as we pulled off a quiet road through even quieter farmland to find the recommended spot, Shane started to have reservations about the remote location.

By this point it was late at night. It was dark. We were pretty exhausted and hadn’t eaten for several hours. So, of course, we had a little argument about what to do. Shane wanted to try and find a more established campground – we were down a dead end and he thought that if an axe murderer came along we wouldn’t be able to escape. I thought it was fine and wanted to go to sleep. Unsurprisingly, I won, and we snuggled down for the night.

All was well, until I heard a noise in the night. I woke Shane up, panicking that the axe murderer had come for us. Shane poked around the tent, while I lay in my sleeping bag, wondering how we were going to get to Mongolia when we couldn’t survive a night in Belgium. Shane thought the noise was probably a squirrel. We have stayed in proper campsites every night since.

The scene of the squirrel attack: wild camping in Belgium

Day two involved a fairly leisurely drive to the German town of Heidelberg – a very pretty area with an impressive looking castle and historic bridge. Shane and I spent some time on the “philosopher’s walk”; some scenic paths near the university which various philosophers, poets and academics used to wander to clear their heads, develop their ideas and enjoy views of the river and town. So Shane and I spent the afternoon following in their footsteps, walking the paths and trying to achieve inner peace after our first full-on couple of days.

Views of Heidelberg from the philosopher’s walk

On day three we headed to Prague to meet up with our fellow Mongol Rally teams at the Mongol Rally Czech Out party. We arrived early and headed into the city for a stroll around the old town and an ice cream, before returning for a couple of drinks, catching up with some of the other teams, and watching a feature film about a man who hitch hiked his way to Mongolia with various teams on the Mongol Rally in 2007. It was a great film, but everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and it reminded us that while all has been plain sailing so far, we have a long way to go and a number of potential disasters await us.


Exploring Prague

John Lennon wall

Mongol Rally meet up: the Czech Out party in Prague

We were up early on day four to drive over 1,000km through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary and into Romania. We left at 6am, and finally stopped driving at 10pm. It was a long day on the road. And yet, both Shane and I were quite content – our only responsibilities were to keep Martha and ourselves safe, fed, and watered, and to keep making progress in an Easterly direction. We began to taste freedom.

Today is day five, and it has been the best day yet. After another early start, we took Martha on her favourite road ever – the twisty, turny, dramatic Transfagarasan Highway. Around 100km of twists and turns, up hill and down hill again. She loved it, although her brakes did get a little hot. We loved it too – we enjoyed the beautiful mountains, forest, rivers and waterfalls, and we met a number of other rally teams at various points along the way (including one Portugese / Irish team who had some serious oil related problems, and a team of Kiwis who had only made it 50km out of Goodwood before breaking down and needing to replace their alternator).

The twisty, turny Transfagarasan Highway

Shane helping to fix another Micra

Georgia exploring the mountains

Martha loving it

We then carried on the road through a busy Bucharest (where I failed to understand the rules of pedestrian corssings) and on to Vama Veche at the edge of Romania where we are currently relaxing by the beach at the final Mongol Rally meet-up. Tomorrow we leave Romania for Bulgaria and, hopefully, Turkey. So far, we are having a great time. Martha is running happily (apart from a small issue with her window getting stuck), our fellow ralliers are friendly and we are making good progress. Most importantly, now that all the jobs are done and we are on the road, we are finally free!

Beach party in Vama Veche, Romania


The Bureaucracy Diaries: The Post Office

Preparing to leave our jobs, rent our house out and set off around the world in a completely inappropriate car sounds glamorous and exciting. The reality is somewhat different – it takes planning and involves A LOT of boring paperwork.

It turns out you don’t need to travel very far to get caught in a maze of red tape. The first excessively complicated procedure that we tried to follow wasn’t at a remote border post mid-way through the ‘Stans… it was at the Post Office.

In order to satisfy other bureaucratic requirements later on the journey (we need a Russian translation of our driving licenses to drive into Russia, for example), we decided to apply for an International Driving Permit (IDP). An IDP is an extra document that we need to have (along with our actual UK driving licences) to drive in certain countries. It also translates your driving license into several different languages – Russian being one. There are details of how to apply online, but you can’t actually apply on the internet. You have to go to a real Post Office with your driving license, another form of ID, a passport sized photo of your face, and £5.50. When you get there, you are given the form that you need to apply for the IDP.

So far, so straightforward (sort of). However, only certain Post Office branches offer this service, so the next challenge was to find one. The Post Office website lets you search for this (hooray!), and while our nearest Post Office branch wasn’t on the list, there was another option about a mile away.

So I walked to the next-nearest Post Office branch. I brought my passport, my driving license, my small photo and my £5.50. I went in and asked to apply for an IDP. But they “don’t offer this service any more”, and suggested I go to Birmingham instead.

Going all the way to Birmingham wasn’t appealing, so I went home, had another internet search and judged that I might be able to get one in Coventry instead, where I work every day. I went to the Post Office on my lunch break to find a long, snaky queue winding its way around the building. There were only two members of staff, and about 40 people waiting. So I waited… and waited…. And waited a bit longer, hoping that the waiting wouldn’t be in vain and that this Post Office actually would let me apply for the IDP.

Waiting at the Post Office

Eventually I got to the front of the queue, asked to apply for an IDP, and was given an application form (yay!). I then had to go away and fill in the form (which I did), and come back with my documents. It wasn’t a long or complicated form, and was just a repeat of the information on my actual driving license. I copied the details from the license onto the form, and went back to submit my documents.

“I’m sorry, but we can’t accept your photo”, the lady said. “It’s not printed on shiny enough paper.”

“What sort of paper should it be printed on?” I asked calmly, trying to be friendly, outside, not feeling so upbeat on the inside.

“Shinier paper.”

Sensing that this wasn’t going to end well for me, and feeling the mounting frustration of the 40 or so people standing behind me in the snaky queue, I left the Post Office and looked for some shiny paper.

As I don’t actually have a working printer, and suspecting that the “shiny paper” issue might crop up again over the next few months when applying for visas, I used Microsoft Paint to make my passport photo into eight squares on a 6×4 photograph, and ordered four photographs on the shiniest photo paper possible from Tesco. At only 15p per photo (60p total), this was a bargain compared to going to a photobooth, meant the photos would be exactly the same as those in my passport, and that I’d have 32 of them.

Once I had the photo-on-the-shiniest-shiny-paper, I went back to the Coventry Post Office (another day, another thrilling lunch break spent in a snaky queue), and waited.

When I eventually reached the front of the queue I had to fill the form in again, and then I gave my documents in. The Post Office clerk then said he needed to know where I was driving.

“You need to know everywhere?” I asked.

“Yes”, he said.

So I started the list: “France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey…”

“So, Europe, basically?” he said.

“Well yes. And Asia. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan…”

“OK, that’s fine.” He seemed to have given up.

The next step was for him to copy out the details on the form onto a new piece of paper. This took quite a while, and seemed like a bit of a waste of time seeing as I had just copied the same details from my driving license onto the form. I made a joke about “repetition and duplication”, to which he replied:

“This is the Post Office. It’s one giant repetition.” Cheery.

The final stage was for him to stick my shiny photograph onto the new piece of paper, and hand it to me. I now had my International Driving Permit – a standard piece of green paper with stuff about driving licenses translated into a few different languages, with the details of my driving license copied onto the last page and a shiny picture of me stuck in it with a pritt-stick.

So far, so excessively complicated. And we haven’t even left the UK yet.


Time spent applying for an International Driving Permit: 5 hours, 15 minutes
(Internet searching, three trips to the Post Office, two very long queues, obtaining photos on shiny paper, filling in the IDP form, explaining details of our route, waiting while the Post Office clerk copied the same information onto another form, etc.)

Cost: £5.50 (No credit cards allowed).