The empty plains of Kazakhstan and an encounter with some Kiwis

The drive from Osh to Bishkek in Northern Kyrgyzstan took longer than planned. There were pretty green mountains, turquoise rivers, yurts, some rain (the first drops we had seen since leaving the UK!), and then there was the “tunnel of death”.

Turquoise river and mountain views in Kyrgyzstan

Mountain road leading down from the “tunnel of death” and our first rain drops of the rally

The Too-Ashuu tunnel (or the “tunnel of death”) has a reputation for extremely poor ventilation. When combined with its 2.6km length and lower levels of oxygen (it’s up a 3,000m high mountain), this makes for a nasty mix. In 2001 several people died in the tunnel when a broken down car caused a tail back flooding the tunnel with carbon monoxide. Thankfully Shane kept this nugget of information to himself until we had safely made it out the other side, so I had no idea we were driving through a death trap.

We arrived in Bishkek after 14 hours of driving. The sun was just starting to set as we drove into the bustling city. Fortunately I had pre-booked us a hostel. Unfortunately we couldn’t find it. After two extra hours of driving around in the dark, we gave up. We spotted a sign for a hotel and knocked on the door. Thankfully they had a room for us, and parking for Martha, so we checked in and grabbed something to eat at the local diner. Fully fed and ready for bed, we both slept like babies.

The next day we pressed on to Almaty in Kazakhstan for some much needed rest and a bit of sight seeing. Almaty felt like a world away from our experience of Central Asia so far. The streets were covered with coffee shops. We could use credit cards to pay for things. Wifi was plentiful. They even had McDonalds.

We made full use of the available amenities, stocking up on cash, fuel and food, and had a wander around the Central Park and the colourful Ascension Cathedral. We also walked around the “Green Bazaar” (it was indeed green), took a trip on the very quiet, clean and efficient metro and visited the Independence Monument.

Ascension Cathedral, Almaty, Kazakhstan

Spices for sale at the Green Bazaar, Almaty, Kazakhstan

Almaty was a very laid back, leafy city. It felt like a different planet to the wild Pamir landscape of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and to the frenetic cities and desert of Uzbekistan. It was also completely different to the version of Kazakhstan portrayed in the film ‘Borat’, which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. The rest of Kazakhstan, however, was a bit different.

It took us three days of driving through Kazakhstan to reach Barnaul in Russia, and over those three days we saw pretty much nothing.

Not because we weren’t looking, but because it turns out that most of Kazakhstan is very flat and very empty. We did spot some golden eagles, which was exciting, but other than that we looked at the same view for three days, and camped in different (but very similar) spots on the side of the road. Kazakhstan is huge; it is the ninth largest country in the world, but has a population of just 17.8 million people, and the landscape is unchanging for hundreds of miles.

One of our campsites in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Kazakhstan


This is what most of Kazakhstan looks like

The only place of note that we passed through on our journey was a town called Semey, which had a sad story. In 1949 the Soviet atomic bomb programme selected a site on the steppe 150km west of the city as the location for its weapons testing. The Soviet Union carried out hundreds of nuclear tests for many years, and the results have not been good.  The people of Semey suffer from high rates of cancer and birth defects. You can even visit the anatomical museum in Semey, which apparently has a gruesome collection of babies and embryos with horrible deformities caused by the nuclear radiation. We didn’t pay the weird babies a visit – the museum was closed by the time we arrived and Shane was feeling a little squeamish about such a place anyway.

Despite all of this, Semey seemed to be a lively city in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Maybe we were just pleased to see something other than the empty plains of Kazakhstan for a change, but we had a nice time.

After another night camping in the middle of nowhere, we crossed the border into Russia and drove up to Barnaul in South Western Siberia. That evening we met up with a four-person strong Mongol Rally team called Kiwis Crossing (made up of Taygen, Debbie, Mike and Nick, and their Toyota Yaris nicknamed ‘Knobby’ after one of their sponsors), and made plans to drive together to the Mongolian border and beyond.

As we drove from Barnaul to the Mongolian border, the scenery became very dramatic. We were driving through the Altai region of Siberia, and the area was covered with forests, mountains, clouds and lakes. The region is famous for activities and sports such as white water rafting, and we could see why.

Stopping for a picnic with our new friends from team Kiwis Crossing

Beautiful scenery in the Altai region, Siberia

Martha soaking up the mountain views

After one night camping with the Kiwis on top of a hill, we made it to the border crossing with Mongolia.

As we approached the border, we were feeling apprehensive. We had heard the roads in Mongolia were worse than anything we had experienced on the rally so far. We knew there were large sections of the country we needed to drive through where there were no roads at all. We heard that previously perfect rally cars had been destroyed in Mongolia.

We made a plan to stay with our new Kiwi friends all the way to Ulaanbaatar on the other side of the country. It was going to take us a week to get through Mongolia, and we expected this week to be the most challenging of all.



The Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway is an excellent challenge for a large four-wheel drive vehicle. The 1,200km road starts in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, crosses the Pamir Mountains, and ends in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. It is known as the “roof of the world”, as it reaches dizzy heights of 4,700 metres, and it is also known for its challenging road conditions, which range from OK to disaster. It’s the ultimate road trip.

When we arrived in Dushanbe, the owner of our hostel asked whether we were planning to visit the Pamir Highway. The route is a major draw for tourists, so he wasn’t surprised when he said yes. Then he asked us how we were going to get there. We looked confused. We pointed at Martha and explained that she was our car, and we were going to drive her all the way. Now he looked confused, and then alarmed. “No, no, no!” he said. “This car cannot do the Pamir Highway!”

Challenge accepted.



Martha was sounding a little unhappy because of the dodgy Uzbekistan fuel. Now that we had made it to Tajikistan, we filled her with decent quality petrol and some octane booster. It seemed to do the trick.

Our first day on the Pamir Highway was smooth and simple. We drove from Dushanbe to Kulob, and eventually we reached the river Panj, which marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. We were in a valley, which was very beautiful, and we were just a stone’s throw away from Afghanistan. We could see Afghan villages, roads and people right up close.

Martha getting close to Afghanistan


An Afghan village across the river

It was fascinating, but being so close to the border also presented a couple of issues. Two other Mongol Rally teams who had driven this route a few days before us had run into problems. One team had tried to camp next to the border (the road goes so close that you can’t really camp anywhere else), and had been picked up by the Tajik army in the middle of the night and taken to sleep in one of their bases. Another team had accidentally taken a wrong turn and had ended up in a Taliban controlled area. Luckily they were OK, but they’d had to bribe some Tajik military officers to get them out (and not arrest them).

Having spent time in military and police compounds in Pakistan several years ago, I had no wish to repeat the experience, so we tried to find somewhere to camp that would be safe and wouldn’t involve any late night army or Taliban adventures. As the sun was starting to set we arrived at a small village. It was close to the Afghanistan border, but shielded by trees and, as people were happily living their everyday lives there, we thought it was probably safe.

We asked whether it would be OK to put up our tent and camp in the village, and a young man who spoke English said it would be fine, and gave us a tour of the local area. (Here’s the river, here’s Afghanistan, here’s some tea and some fruit). We also had tea with an older man who seemed to own a lot of the land, and had made lots of money taking photos of the Tajik army. We looked at the pictures for a long time, and talked about religion and politics (I think he wanted to know what we made of Donald Trump). He also let Shane have a go with his catapult. Eventually we crawled into our tent for a sweaty night’s sleep.

Our camping spot



The next day we were hoping to get to the next big town – Khorog – around 300km away. We started early and made good progress. Before lunchtime we reached a smaller town and saw another Mongol Rally team had stopped. We stopped too to check they were OK, and they were not OK. They had two cars – a Suzuki Jimney which looked like a serious expedition vehicle (not really in the spirit of the Mongol Rally but great for the Pamir Highway), and a VW Campervan. The VW Campervan had suffered some serious gearbox related damage and they were stuck.

We gave them one of our ratchet straps to help them fix their gearbox issue, but there wasn’t much more we could do. Martha was too small to tow the campervan and they were a big team so we couldn’t fit them in the car. They were planning to go all the way back to Dushanbe.

As the day continued, the roads started to deteriorate. We had to slow down. Our average speed dropped to about 10 km/hour, and stayed that way. At this rate it would take us about two weeks to finish the Pamir Highway, and we didn’t have two weeks. We started to worry that maybe Martha couldn’t cope with the bad roads after all.

It was clear that we weren’t going to make it to Khorog that day. As it started to get dark, we realized we had driven only 180km, despite starting our day at 6am. We looked for somewhere to camp, but we still hadn’t left the Afghanistan border so needed to be careful. We stopped in a village and asked around. A nice lady let us park Martha in her driveway, and another nice lady let us camp in her garden close (but not too close) to her cows.

All was well, until Shane woke me up in the middle of the night. He had realized that everything inside the tent was wet. Not just a little damp, but completely soaking. We got out of the tent and noticed that what we had thought was a good spot was actually in the middle of a sort of bog. The snow on the mountains around the valley had melted, so what had been a small stream was now a big marsh. The tent had flooded. We moved the tent to higher ground, but the swimming pool inside the tent didn’t disappear. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep we’ve ever had.



We were quite happy to leave our swimming pool of a tent as early as possible the next day. We continued plodding along the terrible road as fast as we could (not very fast), and it wasn’t long before we encountered an interesting sight. There was a small pedestrian bridge linking Tajikistan to Afghanistan, and on the Tajik side of the bridge was a small penned area, with a significant number of police officers and military personnel. This turned out to be a weekly market where citizens from Afghanistan and Tajikistan were allowed to come together to trade without the stamping of passports or the purchasing of visas.

We carried on our way, and by lunchtime we had reached Khorog. In the afternoon we finally left the Afghanistan border behind us and started to climb higher into the mountains. The road started to improve, the temperature dropped, and the landscape started to open up around us.

Mountain views

It was so open that we struggled to find somewhere secluded enough to set up camp. We spotted two cyclists on the road and asked them what their plans were. They were going to Jelandy, about 8km away, where they said it was possible to get a hot shower. We thought we might as well follow them.

It was true: there was a place in Jelandy where you could get a hot shower. But this was no hostel or hotel, and there were no other tourists staying there. This was Sarez Sanitarium.

Nevertheless, it was comfortable enough. For $4 per person we were given two beds, free use of the sulphuric hot spring where we could (and did) bathe, free private parking and free use of the unattractive outside squat toilet. It was all a bit weird, but we had a bog-free night’s sleep.



As we climbed higher and higher into the mountains, the road started to disappear again, but suddenly it didn’t matter any more. The views were spectacular – we saw snow capped mountains, a wide and open plateau, and our first yak! Martha drove further and further uphill, eventually making it all the way up the highest mountain pass – 4,700 metres above sea level.

Snow capped mountain scenery

Martha reaches the high point of the Pamir Highway – 4,700 metres!

Around lunchtime we stopped in the next town – Murghab. It was incredibly isolated, and looked a little bleak. We still had a nice time visiting the town’s container market (a market where all the stalls have been made out of container ships), where Shane managed to buy an expensive banana (we have no idea how it can possibly have made it to Murghab), and had shashlyk and bread for lunch in a little shack café. If Murghab looked like a slightly depressing place to live in the summer, we could only imagine what it must be like in winter, when the temperature plumments to -40°C.

A “shipping container” market in Murghab

In the afternoon we continued to drive through spectacular scenery, and eventually we reached Lake Karakol – a bright blue lake sitting beneath the mountains. We had been hoping to camp by the lake but found another bleak looking village there, so thought we had better ask about the best place to set up our tent.

Lake Karakol

We were quickly directed to a couple who spoke some English, and they were happy to let us camp in their yard and use their facilities, and didn’t want any money at all. As we set up our tent, we noticed it was getting colder and colder. We used our camping stove to cook some spaghetti, but a combination of the lower boiling point of water at higher altitude and the general cold temperature and wind meant that the pasta was cold straight away. We quickly wrapped up warm and huddled into our tent.



Our next stop was Osh – the end point of the Pamir Highway. On the way we had to cross the border from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan, which proved to be an interesting experience.

Leaving Tajikistan was painful. Not only were the roads to the border falling apart (at one point Martha had to drive UP a waterfall), but it turned out to be our first experience with corrupt officials.

To leave the country, we had to visit four different people for checks and stamps. Each man sat in his own little hut, so we had to navigate our way around the various buildings. The man in the first hut asked us for our “disinfection” certificate for the car. We had no such thing. Had we missed something? Apparently so… the man showed us various other disinfection certificates and kept demanding to see ours. Eventually he said he would let us off if we paid him 80 somoni (about $9). We argued about it for a while, and Shane asked him to give us a receipt (well, to sign his name on a bit of paper), which he eventually did, so we paid up.

The second hut also proved interesting. This was customs. The man inside asked for our customs form, which we happily handed over. He then asked us for $10. “Why?” we kept asking. “What for?”. He couldn’t explain, and eventually he gave up and let us go. At this point we were convinced that something was amiss. These weren’t real charges – it was just the border officers trying to make some extra money out of us.

The story in the third hut was familiar. We needed three pieces of paper for the car, and we didn’t have them. Apparently we were supposed to register in Murghab, pay some money, and get this paperwork. We explained that we had registered in Murghab (you can’t avoid registering just about everywhere as there are constant police stops where you are registered), but we hadn’t been given any paperwork. This man was more aggressive than the others, and he demanded 200 somoni (about $25) to “let us off” and allow us to exit Tajikistan. By this time, we were convinced we were being scammed, so we dug our heels in. Shane wrote out a hand written receipt with the car registration number, the money and the border crossing, but the guy just scribbled it out and got very defensive. He wasn’t going to let us leave, so Shane threatened to put up the tent and sleep outside until we were allowed through. The man didn’t like that. We went backwards and forwards with arguments, and eventually the man stormed off in a strop.

Time was ticking on and we had a long journey ahead of us. We couldn’t get out without this man letting us through the gate, and it was clear he wasn’t budging on his terms. When he came back, it was with a new offer – for 88 somoni ($10) we could be free of Tajikistan. We argued a bit more, but eventually we gave in and handed over the money.

In case you are wondering, we did some research later about whether we were in the wrong. Perhaps we should have had a disinfection certificate. Perhaps there was a $10 customs charge. Perhaps we should have obtained three pieces of paperwork in Murghab for the car. Well, no. It turns out none of these fees were based in any kind of reality. We had effectively been conned.  Lesson learned for next time.

Thankfully our experience entering Kyrgyzstan was much more pleasant. Apart from a short wait to clear customs (actually waiting for the electricity to come back on), everything went smoothly and the border officers were all friendly and honest.

Kyrgyzstan itself was also very pleasant. The roads were in better condition, the landscape was much greener, and we soon found ourselves in Osh, which marked the end of the Pamir Highway. In Osh we had a lovely time exploring Central Asia’s largest bazaar and the world’s only three storey yurt.

The biggest bazaar in Central Asia

The world’s only three storey yurt

Green and yurt-filled Kyrgyzstan


After five long days, some spectacular mountain views, some interesting sleeping experiences and some truly atrocious roads, we had made it to the end of the Pamir Highway. The scenery, the hospitality and the sense of adventure we experienced made this one of the highlights of the Mongol Rally so far. Martha drove on mountain roads, bad roads, sandy roads, no roads and even through rivers and waterfalls. She had made it to 4,700 metres above sea level, and is still in the same condition she was in when we left the U.K.

Mission accomplished. Who needs a massive four-wheel drive car when you have a gold Nissan Micra?!

“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).



Turkmenistan and the road to hell

Turkmenistan wins the prize for being the strangest country we have ever been to. It is also one of the most secretive countries, and as you may remember from our last post, it isn’t exactly easy to visit.

By the time we had left the boat, collected all the stamps, filled in all the forms and paid all the fees required to enter Turkmenistan, it was 6.30pm. The border guards were adamant that tonight we must drive to Ashgabat (the capital), which was at least seven hours away. This wasn’t ideal - we were worried about driving so late at night, and there were a lot of unknowns. We didn’t know what the condition of the roads would be like, we didn’t want to hit any camels, didn’t know whether it was safe, and there was rumoured to be a curfew in Ashgabat which meant you couldn’t be outside (or driving) after 10 or 11pm in the city.

But it was clear there was no choice. We had to get moving, and we wanted to make the most of the available daylight. Thankfully we were with Charlie, Lucas and Roland – the drivers from the teams that had been split up – and we tackled the roads together in convoy. As we drove off, the border guards cheerfully reminded us not to worry: “You will be very safe here. Immigration know exactly where you will be at all times”. Reassurance came with a side order of threat… we had definitely entered a dictatorship now.

If our first impressions of Turkmenistan were that it is an inflexible maze of bureaucracy, filled with stamps, repetitive notebooks and ridiculous charges, our second impressions were that it was one big desert. On the road to Ashgabat we saw a lot of sand, some camels, a few small settlements, and some more sand. Once the sun went down, we found ourselves in a giant sand cloud, which was less than ideal and meant we had slow down. It didn’t help that despite being on a highway, there seemed to be no rules about which side of the road to drive on. Cars hurtled towards us as breakneck speeds, but also approached us from behind. At one point, Lucas (team Silicon Rally), pulled over. “Are we driving on the right side of the road?”, he asked. It remained unclear.

Lucas from team Silicon Rally storming through the Turkmenistan desert

We finally made it to Ashgabat at 4.00am, after nearly 10 hours of driving. Ashgabat looked like a bright, white city, lit up like a Christmas tree, in the middle of the desert. The Lonely Planet had warned us that there was “no budget accommodation in Ashgabat”, and this seemed to prove true. We had identified one “mid-range” hotel, but it was full. Across the road stood the five star Grand Turkmen Hotel, complete with secure parking, air conditioning, swimming pool, breakfast and wifi (well, “wifi” – it didn’t really work, and all social media is banned in Turkmenistan anyway). They had rooms, and although it wasn’t cheap, the idea of a bed for the night (not to mention a comfy bed with all the available amenities) was appealing enough for us all to blow our accommodation budgets and check in.


A day of sleeping and sight seeing followed. As we wandered around Ashgabat, it seemed no expense had been spared in making the city look fantastic. Every building was massive, grand, white (with a hint of gold), spotlessly clean and accompanied by a varying number of fountains. Huge monuments and gold statues littered the city. There were giant squares and parks everywhere (many of which were called “independence square”, or “independence park”, or another similar variation), filled with symmetrical fountains and plants. There were also a considerable number of gold statues, many of which were of the previous President (apparently he had given in to the “huge pubic demand” for thousands of statues of himself. What a good man he must have been.) A stomach turning amount of water was used to keep the city green and keep the thousands of fountains going in the middle of the desert. The city was also spotlessly clean, and you could be fined for having a dirty car (luckily no one spotted Martha, who wasn’t exactly sparkling after driving through a desert sand storm).

Horse statue (and many fountains) in Ashgabat

Symmetrical fountains, tall white buildings and suspiciously green plants in Ashgabat

Martha visits the Monument of Neutrality, Ashgabat

Ashgabat by night

The weirdest thing about the city was that despite its grandeur and its obvious desire to impress, there was no one there. There was a police officer on every corner, and no shortage of cleaners keeping the place immaculate, but there was no one actually in the parks or looking at the fountains or anywhere at all. We were also told we couldn’t take photos of most things, and as we tried to walk across the city were met by Police telling us we couldn’t go any further. It made us question why the government had spent so much time and money making Ashgabat so impressive. Not to impress tourists or foreigners (after all, there were none apart from us – Turkmenistan isn’t exactly an easy place to visit), not to impress or satisfy its own people (again, there were none), and not to impress anyone far away or make Turkmenistan seem like a great country (we couldn’t even take a photograph). Was this all just one massive ego trip for the previous President? It was very surreal, a little eerie, but undoubtedly extraordinary.


As we only had five days to get through Turkmenistan, we couldn’t hang about in Ashgabat for too long. Next stop on the route was a crater of burning gas in the middle of the desert, otherwise known as the gates of hell.

At this point we said goodbye to the drivers from the split teams – their passengers were now on their way to Ashgabat, and they would all come to the gas crater later in the evening or the following day. We travelled up the road to hell with another team from Sweden, who had two cars with four people in each. They were a very friendly team, and they gave us one of their walkie-talkies so we could communicate on the way.

We arrived at the track to the crater with very few issues, apart from having to stop a few times to avoid camels crossing the road. When we did reach the track, we were faced with an interesting sandy hill, and a number of locals in jeeps – some of whom told us we would never make it to the crater in our rubbish cars, and some of whom said we could get up the hill if we approached it from a long way back and went really, really fast.

Martha and some camels on the way to Darvaza (hell)

More camels in the desert


One of the cars from the Swedish team made a first attempt up the hill, while Shane changed the tyres on Martha (we had brought special mud/sand/snow tyres with us which we thought might give her a bit more grip). The first car made it part-way up the hill, but got stuck in the sand. After a bit of pushing, the car was free. It went back down the hill and did better second time. The second car made it up the hill with no problems, but Martha wasn’t so lucky. Shane had four attempts, and on the fourth, all eight people from the Swedish team ran down to push Martha the last few yards. With their help, she made it up.

But over the hill, more sand was waiting, and every single car (including others that arrived, and, of course, Martha) got stuck in the sand. The locals and their jeeps were back, offering different services for different exhorbitant prices (they could drive our cars to the crater for us, for $150 per car!). While Martha could reverse back out of the sand, it was clear she wasn’t going to make it all the way to the crater (at least not any time soon, or without a lot of pushing). Most of the other cars were so stuck that they couldn’t even get back without a lot of help. We were going to need to do some sort of deal with the locals if we wanted to see the gates of hell.

And so, the negotiations began. It wasn’t easy. With so many teams now completely stuck, we had limited bargaining power. The sun had set, and darkness was creeping in, along with various insects. The desert was home to scorpions and spiders and snakes, and we wanted to get out of it and see the burning hole. Eventually, we agreed on a price of $10 per person plus two packets of cigarettes for transport to and from the crater, and to help get the stuck cars un-stuck in the morning.

A long, bumpy ride followed, but we made it to the gates of hell! The burning gas crater was huge, spectacular and hot, and did look like it could be the entrance to hell as the desert seemed to just fall away around it.

The big fiery hole (gas crater) at Darvaza - the gates of hell

Shane and I at the entrance to hell

We camped right beside Martha that night, and after another negotiation in the morning (the locals wanted more money and more cigarettes for moving the stuck cars, so Shane suggested they provide us with a receipt which we show the military police, and suddenly they were happy enough with what they already had), we were back down and ready to drive the 250km or so to the border and enter Uzbekistan.


We were expecting a three to four hour drive, and to arrive at the Uzbekistan border by around 11am, giving us plenty of time to cross over (and deal with the inevitable border bureaucracy) and a leisurely evening on the other side.

As we drove off, we waved goodbye to our new friends from the Swedish team (they had been given a different prescribed route when they entered Turkmenistan, and had even been given a black box which tracked their every movement), and started on our journey.

This didn’t go exactly as planned. The start of the road was bad – it was bumpy and littered with pot holes. Then it got worse. And worse. Eventually we found ourselves on a gravel track. Shane expertly avoided the bumps, but it was very slow going. We finally reached the border at 4pm, after around 8 hours of driving, and found it strangely empty: it was almost closed.

Struggling to avoid potholes on the road from hell

Luckily we were just in time, and as the border police undoubtedly wanted to get home for the day, the process wasn’t too arduous. We were across by 6pm, and felt a newfound sense of freedom as we entered Uzbekistan: our route was no longer fixed, and our visas were valid for 30 days. While our experience of Turkmenistan had been interesting and unique, it had also felt a touch oppressive and difficult. While the surface of Turkmenistan glittered and sparkled, the emptiness, the crazy bureaucracy and the thousands of police officers and soldiers hinted that something underneath wasn’t right.


The Bureaucracy Diaires: Crossing the Caspian Sea

The Mongol Rally starts at Goodwood Motor Circuit in the U.K, passes through Mongolia, and ends in Ulan Ude in Russia. There are optional meet-ups and parties in the Czech Republic and Romania, but otherwise there is no set route.

While most teams tend to take the Northern route (through Northern Europe and Russia), or Southern route (through Turkey and the ‘Stans), previous teams have taken detours through China, the Arctic Circle and even Africa. Shane and I still have visions of taking the Trans-Siberian railway right across Russia one day, so decided to take the Southern route to see the highlights of Central Asia.

The only problem with the Southern route is that there is no obvious or easy way to cross from the Balcony of Europe into Central Asia. The options are:

  1. Drive from Georgia to Russia to Kazakhstan. This is, in fact, not a viable option since it would require a triple entry visa for Russia which are incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to get hold of, particularly if you are not on a business trip (and this is not a business trip).
  2. Drive through Iran to Turkmenistan. A significant number of teams have chosen this option, but it isn’t without its challenges. Visas for Iran are expensive and complex. To take a car into the country makes things even worse. You have to buy a $500 special passport for the car (a ‘carnet’), and British nationals also need to be accompanied by a guide (which requires even more money and paperwork). Shane and I have been to Iran before (and as a female traveller, I didn’t have a particularly positive experience), so we were keen to avoid the expense and the admin, and take a different route to Central Asia.
  3. Take a reliably unreliable ferry over the Caspian Sea. It is possible to take a cargo ship from Baku in Azerbaijan over the Caspian Sea to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. The downside is that reports from previous Mongol Rally teams suggest this is anything but straightforward. From finding the port to buying a ticket, nothing is clear or simple. Everything costs a lot of money and takes a long time.
  4. Take an even more unreliable ferry from Baku to Aktou in Kazakhstan. As above, but even less clear, less frequent and more expensive.

The reliably unreliable ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi seemed like the obvious, if not ideal, choice.


On arriving in Baku, our first problem to solve was that neither Shane nor I had a visa for Turkmenistan. To apply for a five day transit visa (longer tourist visas are significantly harder to come by and require you to be accompanied by a guide through the country), you need a letter of invitation from the government of Turkmenistan. Despite applying for these letters in March, they arrived in July, just one day before the launch of the Mongol Rally, so we didn’t have time to apply for the visas before we left the U.K. Our options were to apply in Baku, or to get on the ferry without a visa and get it on arrival in Turkmenbashi.

In many ways, applying for the visa in Baku was a much riskier option. Our visa would only be valid for five days, and the unreliablility of the ferry meant that if we picked a date that was too soon, the visa could be used up before arriving in Turkmenistan, and that would be a big problem. However, we were repeatedly told that we would not be allowed to board the ferry to Turkmenistan without a valid visa (we wouldn’t be allowed to leave Azerbaijan without proof that we were authorized to enter Turkmenistan), so we set off for the Turkmenistan Embassy in Baku.

The opening hours of the Embassy were limited to Mondays and Fridays (9.30-12.00). Those are the only opening times. We arrived in Baku on a Wednesday night, so after a day of sight seeing on Thursday we were at the Embassy bright and early on Friday morning. After a long wait and some frustrating queue jumping (we saw some locals bribing the guard at the Embassy to reach the front of the line), we were told that the Embassy had no electricity, so could not process any visa applications. We would need to get the visa on arrival in Turkmenbashi or come back on Monday.

As Monday was three days away, we thought we might as well try to board the ferry without the visa. If it didn’t work, we could return to the Embassy and try again. There was a boat in the port, which was apparently sailing to Turkmenbashi that day, so we made our way over there to try and buy a ticket. We met Viktorya at the ticket office. She seemed to be in charge, and she (somewhat aggressively) directed us to sit in a waiting room. She would let us know when she had some information about whether we could buy a ticket.

When she returned, it was with bad news. She didn’t have enough cargo to justify the sailing. The boat was too empty. She said we should come back tomorrow and try again.


Along with several other Mongol Rally teams, we arrived at the port around 9am the next day. Viktorya hadn’t arrived yet, but we found the waiting room full of other people who were also eager to get on a boat. When she arrived, Charlie (from team Genghis Kart) went to speak to her and there was more bad news: the ferry was now too full. There wasn’t enough space for everyone who wanted a ticket. We were told to wait to see whether there would be space for us.

So we waited. And waited. And waited a bit more. Eventually something seemed to change, and we noticed local people queuing up at the ticket office and handing over money. It seemed that it was possible to buy tickets now after all. We joined the queue. It was a long process (more local queue jumping occurred) but eventually the first Mongol Rally team in the queue managed to buy tickets, and all was looking well.

But then there was a sudden change in fortune. Having been told there would be enough space for all the Mongol rally teams, there were now only four more spaces for passengers on the ferry. Charlie from Genghis Kart was next in the queue and had been waiting since Thursday night (it was now Saturday), so it made sense for his team of three to go with Jamie (who was a team of one).

Except then Viktorya had another idea. There was apparently plenty of space for cars, just not for passengers. She suggested that four car drivers board the ferry with their vehicles, and that the remaining passengers take a speedy passenger ferry, which would leave the next day, and should bring us all to Turkmenbashi at the same time. There were four drivers from four teams in the queue: Charlie (from team Genghis Cart) Lucas (from team Silicon Rally) Roland (from team The Flying Dutchmen) and me, and all agreed that this seemed to make sense, as it would get the maximum number of people to Turkmenistan as soon as possible. Each of the drivers bought their tickets, visited a separate office to pay the extra $12 fee for using the ramp on to the boat (yes, really), and started to sort out the cars to make sure passengers had what they needed for the day and for the ferry crossing.

While my rational brain agreed with Viktorya’s plan, the idea of getting on the ferry and going all the way to Turkmenistan without Shane wasn’t appealing. I would miss him, and I started to worry about what could go wrong. Where and when exactly would the passenger ferry go? Where would we meet in Turkmenbashi? What if one of us got stuck on one side or the other? Out of all the parts of the trip where we could be split up, this seemed like the worst part to separate. It suddenly felt like a terrible idea, and I felt quite panicked.

All of a sudden, Viktorya realized she had one extra space for a passenger on the ferry. After establishing it was just for a passenger (now there seemed to be a space for a passenger but no more space for cars…), the other teams suggested Shane buy the ticket, as we were the only team of two. It was our lucky day. Little did I know at this point just how lucky.

After a few hours of hanging around waiting for the ferry to load and passing through customs and passport control, we were welcomed on board the boat. We were led to a room that turned out to be the main social / dining spot, where cabins were being distributed. Lots of angry shouting from other passengers revealed there was another problem – there were not enough rooms for everyone on board.

The Mongol Rally teams were the last to be given cabins, and they were quite obviously the worst ones on the boat, and perhaps weren’t meant to be used at all. They were a floor below every other room (next to the engine) and consisted of two rooms with six bunk beds and one toilet for 12 of us. But, at least there were bunk beds. And an all-important toilet. It could have been worse.

The boat journey was hot and not always comfortable, but it was an experience. We made friends with the locals (and were invited to share their dubious cheese, tomatoes, soft drinks and vodka), watched a lot of Russian films, got invited to explore the bridge and relaxed watching the sunset over the Caspian sea.

Waving goodbye to Baku and setting sail on the Caspian Sea

All was going well, and we reached Turkmenbashi in around 18 hours as promised. However, we couldn’t get off the boat yet. The port was congested, so we had to wait on the boat a little way out in the water. For another 22 hours. This meant our 18-hour boat crossing took 40 hours. We were happy enough on the boat (and had three free meals a day for the whole time on board), but had we been in a rush to get somewhere, this might have been a bit annoying.

Shane getting to work

Friendly little boat in Baku helping us out of the port

View of the Caspian Sea from our “cabin”

Martha enjoying her time on the boat with other rally cars

Passing the time on the 40 hour crossing

Sunset on board as we approached Turkmenbashi

Chilling out on the boat

When we finally docked in Turkmenbashi, we needed to give our passports to the officials on board. I sent Shane to get our letters of invitation to prove we were authorized to enter Turkmenistan (as we were yet to get hold of the visa) and followed the official into an office in a part of the boat we hadn’t yet visited. Then another man told me to follow him, and led me through some windy corridors around the ship. I started to feel a little anxious. I wasn’t sure where he was leading me or what this was all about. I was on my own, and no one (including Shane) knew where I was. The man opened a door and told me to follow him into a room.

A wave of cool air washed over me. This room was air conditioned (unlike the rest of the boat), and there were plates of cherries, sunflower seeds and cold drinks on the table. “I am the captain”, the man said, and invited me to sit down and enjoy a cold drink, a bite to eat and some Russian films. We had been communicating and watching Russian films together for a while, when I could hear Shane outside calling for me, so I shouted back and he joined us for some more cherries and a Russian soap opera.

After two or three hours with the captain, it was time to leave our air conditioned oasis and get off the boat. As we reached land and our phones picked up a signal, we had some bad news. The promised ‘passenger ferry’ hadn’t materialized. The passengers from the three teams with us were still in Baku. They weren’t getting on a boat that day, and couldn’t be certain they would get on one the next day. Despite our delayed ferry crossing, they wouldn’t be able to catch up. We only had a five-day visa to get across Turkmenistan, and the passengers were at least two days behind.

The problem became even clearer as we started the process of entering Turkmenistan. There was no option for the teams to stay the other side of the border and delay their visas starting. There was no flexibility on the visa dates. In fact, there was no flexibility on anything, and we wouldn’t even be allowed to stay in Turkmenbashi for a day or two to give them the chance to catch up. Shane and I were the only ones lucky enough to be together, and we planned to stick with the drivers from the three split teams for as long as we could.

Entering Turkmenistan was bureaucracy on a whole new level. I have never experienced anything like it, and I don’t know whether anyone reading this will even believe it, but this is the condensed version of exactly what happened:

Step 1: Apply for visa. We had to give in our passports, and a detailed itinerary of where we would be on which dates. Except that it turned out we had no choice in this. We had to follow a set itinerary that the Turkmenistan government had already been decided for us. (Luckily this fit with our planned itinerary). We could not stay in Turkmenbashi. We had to go straight to Ashgabat THAT DAY (even though it was an eight hour drive away and we would probably get there in the middle of the night, given the length of time the immigration process took). And so on.

Step 2: Pay for visa. This had to be done at the bank, rather than at the passport office. For UK citizens, this was $85, plus a $14 “entrance fee” and a $2 “extra charge”. For Irish citizens, this was a bit cheaper ($55, plus $14, plus $2). This could only be paid in US dollars.

Step 3: Back to passport control. Have fingerprints taken, photos taken, reconfirm all details in the passport and all car details.

Step 4: Visit an office on the other side of the building (this involved first going through an X-ray machine) to complete some paperwork for the car. All details about me, the car, the route we were taking and various other bits and pieces were written into a big notebook. Then a form was filled in with a bill on it, and given to me. I was told I needed to take it to two additional offices, and then to the bank to pay the bill.

Step 5: Take the same paperwork to a man in the office next door. He filled out all the information into another big notebook, and gave me some kind of stamp.

Step 6: As above, but in another office two doors down.

Step 7: Try to pay the money I owed for the car at the bank (about $170 for insurance, fuel compensation, tax and extras). Unfortunately the lady at the bank told me there were some extra steps involved. I had to first go and get a ticket, then go to the ticket office, and then come back to the bank.

Step 8: Visit an office behind the ticket office (this involved leaving the area, so I had to show my passport).

Step 9: Collect a ticket from the office behind the ticket office.

Step 10: Take the ticket to the ticket office (all the details were copied out into another notebook and another piece of paper was given to me).

Step 11: Back to the bank where I was finally able to pay (in US dollars only), get a receipt and some more bits of paper.

Step 12: Back to the ticket office where I had to pay for something else (in the local currency, Turkmenistan Manat, only – challenging when you can’t get any outside of Turkmenistan and there is no ATM or money changer at the border), get a receipt and more bits of paper.

Step 13: Back to the original car office with the receipts to collect some more paperwork.

Step 14: Go to the customs office, fill in a customs declaration form, and watch as my details are written down in another notebook, and another form is filled out and more paperwork provided.

Step 15: Get my new bit of paperwork (the customs form) stamped. This involved yet another note taking exercise and questions about me and the car.

Step 16: Get another stamp for the customs form.

Step 17: Take the stamped form back to the customs office. Finally given the all clear to go.

Step 18: It turned out we were not quite clear to go – it was now time for a thorough car search. I had to find and identify every sort of medicine we had, and they went through various bags. They even read my books. We got off lightly compared to the other Mongol Rally cars though.

Finally, after at least six hours of moving from office to office, handing over wads of cash and seeing my name and details written in more notebooks than I could ever imagine, we were free to go. Well, as free as you can be when you have been clearly told that you must drive eight hours to Ashgabat, and it’s already 6.30pm.

Crossing the Caspian Sea was expensive and difficult, but it was an experience, and it was worth it to see Turkmenistan and to make it into Central Asia.

Map of the process to enter Turkmenistan

Some of the paperwork and stamps collected


Crossing the Caspian Sea:

Total time: Five days (4 hours attempting to get a visa, 3 hours waiting for the ferry on day one, 12 hours waiting for the ferry on day two, 40 hours on the ferry, 3 hours unloading time, 6 hours entering Turkmenistan).

Total cost: $634 ($340 for ferry tickets for Georgia, Shane and Martha, $12 fee for using the ramp to board the ferry, $140 for Turkmenistan visas, $28 for entrance fee to Turkmenistan, $4 for extras, $30 for Martha’s entry and transit passage, $74 for fuel consumption – fuel is ridiculously cheap here, so tourists have to pay an extra charge for every mile they drive – $5 for processing the documents, 4 Turkmenistan Manat (about $1) for something which remains unclear).

Pieces of paper and stamps collected: Too many to count.

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


Ready, steady, go!

On Saturday 15th July, Shane and I arrived at Goodwood Motor Circuit for the launch of the 2017 Mongol Rally.

After parking Martha amongst her friends and putting up our tent, we were joined by some friends of our own– Rhiannon, Hannah and Catherine – who had travelled far and wide to see us off. We took them to see a few of the other cars, gave them one last chance to write on Martha and then had a drink and something to eat before they headed back and we started to mingle with some of our fellow teams.

Hannah, Catherine, Georgia and Rhiannon with Martha

The Adventurists put on a whole evening of organised fun – from Mongolian wrestling to sword fighting to a late night dance party, there was plenty to see and do, and no shortage of other people who were just as crazy as us and planning to drive their cars all the way to Mongolia. We even met a couple of people planning to drive the whole way to Mongolia on a motorbike. To me, this seemed mad. They would have no spacious back seat to store ridiculous amounts of super noodles (or have a nap in), no protection from the elements and no one else to take over the driving when they’ve just had enough. They are very, very brave. Or very, very stupid. It makes doing the Mongol Rally in a Micra look like a trip to a theme park.

Mongolian wrestling


Sword fighting


Some messages from our fellow Mongol Rally teams!


Last kiss before we argue so much we hate each other


On Sunday morning, Shane and I woke up in our little tent (our home for the next eight weeks), and had our first argument, as Shane insisted we get up and pack the tent and sleeping bags up at 7am, even though there was nothing to do and nowhere to go for at least another hour or two. Sure enough, at 7.15, we were sitting in the car with nothing to do and nowhere to go, and I was wishing I’d had an extra snooze.

Eventually, it was time to get moving from the campsite to the race track. We had time to stop for a quick picture with the other Irish teams taking part in the rally, which also gave us a good opportunity to test out the roof rack (it held Shane and I and our belongings without complaint), and then it was time for a whole group photo and the Mongol rally prizes.

All the Irish Mongol Rally teams!


There were three main prizes:

  • “Spirit of the rally”, given to the team who most fully embraced the spirit of the Mongol Rally by taking the smallest, most rubbish car, which was most likely to break down. This went to two teams who were driving Morris Minors (one 1964 and one 1970). They had already broken down four times just trying to reach Goodwood.
  • “Best pimped car”, given to the team who made their car look the most ridiculous, or most interesting. This went to a team who had covered their car entirely in fur.


  • The third prize was more of a forefeit than a prize. One team had brought a 1.6 liter vehicle (which is very much against the rules – the car is meant to be 1 liter or less). As punishment, they were publicly shamed and given a heavy exercise bike which they now have to put on their roof and bring all the way to Mongolia.

Next, we lined up row by row and completed a lap of the race track , and then we were on our way! The Mongol Rally has officially started!

Rally cars ready for a lap around the track


Our first stop was Dover. Our only problem was that there was a major accident on the M25, which we tried to avoid by going cross-country around the South Downs. The scenery was beautiful, but it took us an hour longer than planned and we got stuck behind numerous slow moving vehicles, including a steam train. We didn’t get to Dover until 3.30, and had to wait until 4.40 for the next ferry. Our plan to do another three hours of driving after reaching Calais was looking increasingly ambitious, and our Mongol Rally whatsapp group was pinging with news from other teams who had reached Amsterdam, Brugges and even Germany, while we were still yet to leave the UK.

But, better late than never, we made it on to the ferry and found plenty of other teams going at much the same rate. We also heard that there had been some teams who were not doing so well, and had broken down between Goodwood and Dover.

Car broken down between Goodwood and Dover

As we sail away from the cliffs of Dover, this will be our last blog from the U.K. Our plan is to spend the next two days meandering away across France, Belgium and Germany before our next big stop: Prague.

White cliffs of Dover

Checking out the competition

With Martha ready for adventure, Shane and I thought we would take her out for a drive to make some new friends. The Adventurists were holding a get together at Ashdown Motorcross Circuit in Oxfordshire for people about to set off on the Mongol rally and their “cars”, so we drove down to have a look at the other cars and meet some of our future travel companions.

We made it down the M40 and A34 without any problems, but to get to the Motorcross Circuit we then had to drive for a couple of miles on a rough, uneven dirt track. First we wondered whether we had come the right way. Then we realised this was Martha’s first little test. Thankfully there were no problems – Martha definitely handled the non-road like a little adventure car – and she trundled along much faster than the considerably newer (but unmodified) Nissan Micra which followed us. Martha: 1, other Mongol rally cars: 0.

As we drove into the meet-up area, I noticed with some excitement that there were quite a few other girls there (I had been prepared for a severe lack of women given the number taking part in the Mongol rally in previous years). When I mentioned this to Shane, however, he joked that they were probably only here to accompany their boyfriends and wouldn’t actually be going on the rally. I snapped at him for being so sexist. In total, I met five other women who were taking part in the Mongol rally. In the case of the other women who I saw at the event, sadly Shane’s sexist assumption turned out to be absolutely right… they were there with their boyfriends and would not be driving to Mongolia.

On the plus side, the five women I did meet (and the men) were all pretty cool. Based on our experience of watching previous rally teams on youtube, we were expecting most of the teams to be made up of 18 year old guys on their gap-yahs, but our real life experience was completely different. We met a father and daughter team, two couples, and a number of people who had given up (or were giving up) their jobs to take part in the Mongol rally, and some who were completely changing their lifestyle to work less and travel more. They were also really adventurous and up for some fun, and many spent the afternoon competing in a monkey-bike race to win 100,000 Iranian rials (worth about £2).

Some of our fellow ralliers racing on monkey bikes

We also met some pretty cool cars. There were quite a few Micras, a Yaris or two, and some other slightly more exotic choices, including the Trabant and the beach buggy which are featured in a blog by the Adventurists here. We also heard tales from the Adventurists of someone undertaking this year’s rally in an electric Nissan Leaf. “Wow!”, Shane and I said. “Oh. It won’t make it”, the man from the Adventurists said.

Q: "What colour do you say your car is when filling in visa forms?"    A: "Yellow. Or custom. Yellow / custom. Although the car used to be blue.  Maybe we should put blue."


Q: "What do you do when it rains?" A: "Get wet."


Q: "Are you going to install a roof box?"       A: "We already have one. It's also a canoe."

Despite some of the cars being a little more unusual than Martha, she still stood out. She attracted a lot of attention for her golden colour, her rally-ready appearance and for the fact that she is my actual car. Everyone else we met had bought their car specifically for the rally, while Martha and I have a longer-term bond.  In comparison to some of the other cars we saw, Martha was pretty well kitted out with her tyres, roof rack, extra wheels, sump guard, super-strong lights, big battery… some of the cars had had no improvements whatsoever.

Suddenly we felt a little better. We may be under-prepared, but so is everyone else.



From rusty to ready

With two weeks to go until we wave goodbye to the U.K. and head for Mongolia, we still have a lot of preparation to do. From moving out of our house to assembling all the equipment we need to hitting our charity fundraising target, we are starting to feel under pressure to tick off the items on our to do list. Our main driving partner (Martha), however, is now ready to rally.

To understand the scale of this triumph, it’s worth a quick blast from the past.


Three months ago, I took Martha to a local garage in Solihull to get her MOT, which was just about due to expire. I thought this would be relatively simple and straightforward. Over the five years I’ve owned Martha, we’ve perfected our MOT routine: I take Martha to her MOT. She fails. She needs some minor work to get her through. I hand over money. She passes, and she’s good to go for another year.

However, in 2017 – the year I planned to take Martha over to Ireland and drive her to get married on my wedding day, and the year I planned to drive her 10,000 miles to Mongolia – the MOT routine didn’t go quite as smoothly as usual. In fact, it didn’t go at all. Martha failed, and I found myself having a familiar conversation with the man at the garage (I think his name was Dave), with a not-so familiar ending:

Dave: “Sorry, your car has failed the MOT.”

Georgia: “OK. What does it need?”

Dave: “The thing is, given the age of the car and the mileage it’s done, it’s not going to be worth your while repairing it.”

Georgia: “Oh, well, actually I love this car, so…. What does it need?”

Dave: “I’m afraid we wouldn’t be able to repair it for you, even if you wanted us too. It’s gone past that stage. It’s what we call an ‘uneconomical repair’… it’s failed on [lots and lots and lots of things that I didn’t understand]. We wouldn’t even know where to start with some of that, and it would cost you thousands. It’s a no-go I’m afraid. We can help you organise scrappage.”

Georgia: “I see. No… that’s not an option. I’ll come and pick up the car tonight.”

When I went to pick up Martha from the garage, I told Dave about our plans to take Martha to Mongolia. He laughed. A lot. When he had finished laughing, and asked (several times) whether I was really serious, he told me that I would never get there and needed to pick a different car. I picked up Martha’s keys and told him I would send him a picture of Martha when she reached Mongolia. As I left, he was still laughing.


With no help whatsoever from the local garage, Martha made it to Ireland for our wedding. She didn’t break down on the way to the venue, and she even managed a little trip around Kerry, untroubled by some of the rough and windy roads.

Dad driving Martha and I on my wedding day

Shane and I with Martha at our wedding

Martha navigating difficult roads in Kerry

Martha posing for a picture in Kerry


A long time before the dramatic MOT-fail, Shane’s Uncle had very generously offered to help get Martha in tip-top shape for the rally if we left her with him after the wedding. So, wedding over and mini-moon around the ring of Kerry complete, we left Martha in Ireland for a few weeks of TLC. Whether Shane’s Uncle realised exactly what he volunteered for, I don’t know. He does now.

This week, we went back to Ireland. Shane’s Uncle and brother had done an amazing job looking after Martha – getting rid of the rust, making some armour for her so that she survives the non-roads in Mongolia, making a bespoke roof rack completely from scratch to give us some extra storage space and extending her battery tray to make room for a bigger battery – and over the last week Shane has joined them in working from dawn until dusk (well… more like until midnight) to make sure Martha has everything she needs and more.

Shane fixing Martha

Shane’s Martha to-do list

Shane’s Dad fixing Martha

Shane’s Uncle fixing Martha

Shane, Shane’s Dad and Shane’s brother fixing Martha

We also had a lot of amazing and generous help from motor factors in Kilkenny. Thank you to:

  • James Walsh Auto Electrical for paint and wipers so we can see we are going.
  • Top Part for a rather large battery so that we can leave the lights on to put up our tent, charge items over night and still be able to start the car in the morning.
  • Madden’s car breakers who let Shane’s Dad and I explore their car graveyard and take whatever we needed off old (although not as old as Martha) Nissan Micras. They even stopped their real work and used their serious tools to get us some extra bits.
  • An anonymous motor factor who doesn’t wish to be named but went above and beyond, supplying brakes, suspension and service parts for Martha.

All the above motor factors offered their time, expertise and parts completely free of charge to help us raise money for our chosen charities – Cool Earth, Cystic Fibrosis Trust and Cystic Fibrosis Ireland.

A trip to Madden’s car breakers for bits and pieces

The sad car graveyard at Madden’s car breakers

Helping ourselves to a few bits off this Nissan Micra


Yesterday we brought Martha back with us to the UK. Her MOT expiry date had been and gone, so we couldn’t drive her legally unless we took her straight to an MOT centre. Luckily there was a garage in Holyhead – just a six minute drive from the ferry port – which had time to test Martha.

Shane and I waited nervously. If she failed, it would leave us with several problems. How would we get home from Holyhead? How would we fix it? How would she ever get to Mongolia?

But this time, Martha passed. And when I told the man at the garage that we were going to take her to Mongolia, he didn’t laugh. He didn’t even look surprised. He nodded, and said she was a good car. In fact, he even said “Your Nissan Micra is more likely to make it to Mongolia than a £20,000 Land Rover”, and he said it without a hint of sarcasm.

And in that moment, as Martha sparkled in all her golden splendor, with new brakes, new tyres, new shocks, new springs, a brand new handmade roof rack, new lights, a new battery, new armour and new non-rusty bits, we knew that thanks to the nonstop work of Shane and his family and the generosity of motor factors across Ireland, Martha’s transformation into a super expedition vehicle was complete.

Martha ready for her adventure

Martha is ready for the trip of her lifetime. Now Shane and I just need to get ready too.