Big Trip 2010

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					                                         Big Trip 2010
                                       May 5 – August 30, 2010
                                  Stani and Kirstin’s big adventure…

The Trip Vehicle – Posted by Stani on Monday, May 17, 2010
What is the ideal vehicle with which to drive across Europe and Asia? A VW camper – a practical
choice to sleep and cook in efficient comfort, a Mazda MX-5 Miata or Porsche 911 – a blast to pilot
through well-surfaced, winding European mountain roads, a Land Rover Defender (or a good horse) – to
handle the Mongolian Steppe. Would you take a new vehicle? Or is a reliable workhorse that reduces the
worry of wear-and-tear and theft be the better choice? Would it be cavernous to bring parts and
equipment or small to fit on narrow roads and be fuel efficient? Should it announce our arrival with
sponsor logos, a roof rack and spare gas tanks, or should it blend in and pass through nearly unnoticed?
Surely it should be reliable, easily serviced and have parts available in the places visited. After much
thought I settled on a 2002 Toyota 4Runner with 90k miles for this trip.

Reliability of the 4Runner is at the top of its class, Toyotas are sold and serviced nearly everywhere, it is
comfortable on highways and is one of the most off-road capable 4WD vehicles sold anywhere, it’s
medium size allows two people to sleep in it (with a custom sleeping/storage platform installed) and has
some room for equipment while still fitting onto small roads, and in stock form it shouldn’t draw too
much attention in most places.

Our 4Runner has a 3.4L V6 and a 4 speed automatic transmission. I get about 20 miles/gallon (11.7
L/100 km) in combined city/highway/light off-road driving. Off-road specs are 4WD high or low range,
center differential open (with vehicle stability) or locked, 11” ground clearance, 36º and 29º maximum
angles of approach/departure, Michelin LTX AT2 all-terrain tires.

For sleeping and storage I built a custom platform and drawers that can be converted to accommodate
the rear seat in the up or down position. For camping I also added curtains that attach to the car’s inside
trim and bug screens that attach to the car’s body with magnets.

Rear seat up

Rear seat down

View from side door


Screen in side window

How will our trip vehicle work for us? Stay tuned…

We made it to London! – Posted by Kirstin on Friday, May 7, 2010

I'm happy to report that we arrived at our first destination, London, late at night on May 6. Our flights
from Detroit to Chicago, Chicago to Warsaw and Warsaw to London were all late, so we arrived in
London later than we first planned, but we're happy to be here. One nice part about the delays was that
we were able to see our parents, who met us at the airport in Chicago.

Here in London, we're staying with my sister-in-law's sister-Kari, her husband-James and their little
daughter-Elisebeth in a cozy apartment in the north part of the city. Our plan to pick up our vehicle
today is also most likely going to be delayed because the car is still stuck in customs, but hopefully we'll
be able to pick it up on Monday and start the trip to Scotland. Neither Stani or I have really looked
around London before, so we'll do some sightseeing around the city which will be nice. We're grateful
to Kari and James for being such nice hosts and allowing us to stay here longer than we planned.

The Big Trip Has Begun – Posted by Kirstin on Monday, May 10, 2010

When I last wrote, we were still in London hoping our car would clear customs. did late Friday
afternoon. The office closed at 4pm, so we stayed in London for the weekend and then could pick up our
car from Felixstowe on Monday morning. So with a few extra days in London, we were able to get a
nice although quick glimpse of the city. Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus,
Trafalgar Square. In addition to the double decker bus tour, we also took a boat tour on the Thames
River to Greenwich. This was neat since it's where people chose the prime meridan to be located and
where GMT (time) is from. On Sunday we attended a service at Westminster Abbey. This was so
interesting, expecially thinking that we were in the place where all the monarchs were crowned since
William the Conqueror became king in 1066. On Sunday afternoon, we took a bus to Felixstowe where
we anxiously awaited the reunion with our 4Runner.

Monday morning, Stani went and picked up the car. Mostly everything was ok, however there were a
few things missing, nothing too important (a roll of paper towels, flashlight, pen, plastic water bottle, 6
music CDs, tissues, ziplock plastic bags and Gateraid mix) but still it was annoying that these were
gone. We think they were probably taken from the port in New Jersey. The good thing though was that
we had our car and the trip could begin!

From Felixstowe we drove north to Sheffield and stayed overnight with one of Stani's work colleague's
parents, Dick and Margaret. We enjoyed London, but it was really nice to be out of the big city and in
the English countryside. Dick and Margaret gave us a really nice driving tour of the area and we enjoyed
a lovely dinner (fish and chips and chicken & mushroom pie...and pints of beer of course) at a cozy
restaurant. They were gracious hosts and we really enjoyed this visit. It was a perfect way to start the big

Heading North into Scotland – Posted by Kirstin on Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tuesday May 11:

On Tuesday morning we had breakfast with Dick & Margaret, admired their garden, packed up and
headed out to start our drive towards Scotland. I’m so jealous of all the beautiful flowering trees and
bushes they have, but I know that our backyard couldn’t look like theirs because our climate and
temperatures are very different. I thought it was nice how so many things from their garden are gifts
from others and have a story behind them. The entire rest of the day was pretty much just a driving day.
There were lots of fields of yellow flowers along the road called rape seed. They look beautiful, but
apparently a lot of people don’t like them because of their allergies, but they sure look lovely! At night
we crossed the border into Scotland and stopped to sleep. We arrived around 9pm and had to stop at
several campgrounds (one was closed and looked run down, another was only for motor homes, but the
third we finally lucked out). Our home for the night was in the town Kirkpatrick-Fleming at a
campground called King Robert the Bruce’s Cave Caravan and Campground. Pulling up in the dark, we
weren’t sure we would be let in, but luckily a woman answered the office door and warmly welcomed us
to the place. It was cold, but we set up our tent, ate our dinner and went to sleep. I was cold the whole
night even though I had almost all my clothes layered on me!

Wednesday May 12:

In the morning we organized our stuff in the car finally using the nice drawers that Stani built under our
platform in the back of the car. Stani has the right drawer for his stuff as well as tools and a first aid kit
and I’m using the left drawer for my clothes as well as the guidebooks and maps. The drawers are nice,
but certainly anyone who likes to have numerous changes of clothes would not be happy with the
allotted space. My 3 pairs of pants, 1 skirt, 1 dress, fleece, sweater, 3 long sleeve shirts, 2 short sleeve
shirts, jean jacket, underwear and 3 scarves all just fit. On top of the platform we have two plastic bins
with lids (it’s actually a file folder bin). One is for food and the other is for cooking equipment. So far it
seems like a good system. We’re trying not to have too many things on top of the platform so that our
car attracts less attention.

After the car was ready, we took a short walk down a path to the campground’s namesake…King Robert
the Bruce’s Cave. The story goes that King Robert the Bruce (who was king of Scotland in 1306) hid in
this cave for 2-3 months in the winter, hiding from the English. It was here in his solitude that he caught
sight of a spider who was trying to build a web on one of the small peep holes from the cave. This spider
tried and tried but couldn’t seem to have success with his web, but King Robert the Bruce noticed that
the spider didn’t give up. Instead he kept on trying. Finally after many unsuccessful attempts, the spider
was able to figure it out and built his web. King Robert the Bruce was so inspired by the spider that after
he left the cave, he gathered a small group of Scotsman who then defeated the English army at the Battle
of Bannockburn in 1314 helping to retain their independence from England. According to the brochure
at our campground, this story is where the saying” If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” comes

We then began a picturesque day of driving from Kirkpatrick-Fleming to Glen Coe. The drive was a real
treat full of green rolling hills, lochs and winding roads. We stopped for a picnic lunch overlooking
Loch Lemond. As the day continued, the views became more and more impressive. Stani said the
scenery reminded him of his motorcycle trip through Norway. The area near Glen Coe is a popular place
for hikers, bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. We of course were just passing through and our time
was short, so there wasn’t time to enjoy any of these activities, but it would be a beautiful place to spend
more time exploring. We found an great campground in Glencoe Village called Red Squirrel
campground. Our site was situated on a grassy area at the bottom of two mountains. We set up camp and
celebrated the beginning of our trip with some delicious ice wine that Stani bought in Austria several
years ago. A perfect setting for our celebration!

From the Scottish Highlands to the English Channel – Posted by Kirstin on Sunday, May 16, 2010

Thursday May 13:

In the morning we left beautiful Glen Coe, but we were still treated the entire day with more nice
scenery. We drove up to Fort Williams where we found a library that allowed guest internet access for
30 minutes. Since this wasn’t nearly enough time, we were happy to find a cool outdoor supply store just
across the street that had free wi-fi. Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain (just over 1,300 meters)
is located nearby Fort Williams, so I’m sure this store gets plenty of traffic from outdoor enthusiasts.
After our break, we continued our day’s journey, this time in search of the infamous Loch Ness monster.
We stopped briefly in the town Fort Augustus which is at the southern tip of Loch Ness to see if we
could spot Nessie, but since it was chilly and gray, we were told by the locals that our chances of
spotting her would be slim. They were right, but it was nice to stop and admire the loch.

The rest of the day was spent driving. We passed moor after moor covered in heather. At this time of
year, the heather was brown, but I can just imagine how lovely it would be in the autumn when it
blooms and all you would be able to see for miles would be fields of purple. Instead of purple, we saw
lots of golden yellow flowers called “broom” which grows on a thorny bush (maybe so the sheep don’t
eat it!).

At the end of the day, we reached the town of Ullapool, where we found a perfect camping spot at
Broomfield Campground right on the edge of Loch Brown which opens into the Atlantic Ocean.
Because we were pretty far north, it was still light out at 10:30pm!

Friday May 14:

This was a driving day, but not just any ordinary driving day…we got to drive along the west and north
coast of the Scottish Highlands. Before coming to Scotland, it was one of the places we were looking
forward to visiting. From Ullapool on the west to Dunnit Head on the far east, we drove along a road
that followed cliffs, mountains and fjords. The road in spots was just a single road with two way traffic
and a small section that you could pull over if there was oncoming traffic. We took a small road to
Dunnit Head which is the northern most tip of Britain. We drove south from here and stayed at a youth
hostel overnight in a town called Newtonmore.

Saturday May 15:

We drove all day from Newtonmore to Folkstone, where we were going to take the Chunnel to Calais
France the next morning. We camped at a nice campground that had a great view of the English
Channel. It was neat to be able to look across and see our next destination, France.

France and Germany – Posted by Kirstin on Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sunday May 16:

In the morning we crossed the English Channel in the Eurotunnel. You drive your car into one of the
train cars, put it in park and sit back for 35 minutes until you reach Calais, France. It’s pretty amazing!
The Chunnel trip was probably the most exciting part of the day, since the rest of the day was just
driving through France into Germany. Stani drove most of the day, but I did get a chance to drive on the
infamous, no speed limit, German autobahn. As I crossed the border from France to Germany, I was
driving 75 mph in the right lane and this guy flew by me like I was standing still. Stani thought this was
funny and said, “Welcome to Germany!”

May 17-20:

We had a really nice time staying with Stani’s sister, Tania, in Frankfurt for a few days. It was great
seeing her and her family, visiting the botanical gardens, seeing their garden plot with flowers,
strawberries and a garden house, and walking around the city a bit. The old part of town was really cool.
Most of this area was destroyed during World War II, but when it was rebuilt, they did it in the old style.
On May 19th, we drove from Frankfurt to Munich and stayed overnight with Olaf, a friend of Stani’s
who studied in Ann Arbor about 10 years ago. We had a nice evening with his family, seeing his house,
bikes, model airplanes and Volkswagen camper.

Czech Republic – Posted by Kirstin on Friday, May 28, 2010

May 21-23

I love the Czech Republic! I was here in 2005 for the wedding of Stani’s cousin, Monika, and had a
wonderful time touring the country with Stani’s parents. Stani’s father is from the Czech Republic, so it
was really special to be able to visit places he knew. Now 5 years later, it’s great to be back! It’s such a
beautiful country with fields of yellow rape seed flowers, castles, rolling green hills, yummy food and
incredibly friendly people. This time our tour guide is Stani’s uncle, Mirek who lives in the US. It
worked out that he was going to be in the Czech Republic the same time we were. For two nights we
stayed in a small village called Novy Jachimov, where Stani’s grandpa owned a house. Mirek is here
working on fixing up the house since no one has lived in it for years. There’s a lot of work to be done,
but knowing Mirek, after he’s finished remodeling it, it’ll be really nice.

For most of the day Friday, we walked around Prague. This is one of my favorite cities…it’s really a
very romantic place with incredible architecture, winding cobblestone streets, shops with unique gifts,
delicious food, the biggest castle complex in the world and the lovely Charles Bridge. Old Town Square
(Staromestske nam) is an energy filled place dominated by Tyn Church, St. Nicholas Church & the Old
Town clock tower. When we were there, we listened to band called Rusty Circle playing Czech folk
music. You can click on the video below to get a taste! I showed the band members this video which I
took with my camera and they responded by giving me one of their CDs. I couldn’t believe it!

Our May 22, we drove east to another small village called Odry. This is where Mirek grew up and many
of his family members still live here. We stayed in a condo that belongs to Mirek and was his mother’s
before she passed away. It was really fun being able to see big cities as well as small villages.

Slovakia – Posted by Kirstin on Monday, May 31, 2010

May 23-25:

On the 23rd, we left Mirek and the Czech Republic. I have to say I was a bit sad leaving that beautiful
country. We entered Slovakia and bought a highway sticker which they use instead of having toll
booths. We bought a sticker when we entered Czech Republic, and we'll need to do this when we enter
Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria as well. We drove east across Slovakia and camped in a town near the
Demanovska ice caves. Unfortunately the next morning the caves where closed because it was Monday
so we got into the car and headed further east to the High Tatra mountains.

Stani and I are staying at a campground in the resort town of Tatranska Lomnica in the Tatra Mountains.
Wow are these mountains beautiful! We took a cable car up one of the mountains to Skalnate Pleso at
1,751 meters and then hiked down for about 3 hours through rocks, streams, and cool forests with all
kinds of interesting things growing. It was really fun despite my feet hurting from my hiking boots. This
area is really busy in the summer with tourists and in the winter with skiers, but we're here at an off
time, and it's pretty dead. Being surrounded by these beautiful peaks is really a treat!

Hungary – Posted by Kirstin on Wednesday, June 2, 2010

May 26-28

Today we crossed the border into our sixth country, Hungary. The border crossings so far have been
nothing more than a sign indicating you’re in a new country since all the countries we’ve been in are
part of the European Union and have signed a treaty called the Schengen Agreement. This treaty
basically removes border controls between signatory countries. The other convenient thing for travelers
is that many EU countries use the same currency, the euro. For the countries we’ve visited France,
Germany and Slovakia use the euro while the UK, Czech Republic and Hungary still use their own
currency, the British pound, koruna ceska and forint.

Our first night and day in Hungary was spent in an adorable village called Holloko. It is a UNESCO
World Heritage Site. The two street cobblestone village has white washed houses with dark wood trim,
tiled roofs and flower boxes filled with red geraniums. The village also has a beautiful church and an
impressive castle ruin. The women are dressed in folk costumes and you can walk around the village
exploring the little shops with hand woven linens, woodcarvings and other handcrafts. I loved it!

Like all good villages, Holloko has a legend that has been passed down orally from generation to
generation. According to the ancient legend a warlord captured a beautiful young lady and locked her up
in his nearby fortress. Unbeknownst to the warlord was that the young woman’s nurse was a witch. The
witch, discovering what had happened, sought the help of the devil to free the young maiden. The devil
transformed his offspring into the shape of ravens. After rescuing the beauty, the ravens demolished the
fortress and constructed Holloko castle on the cliff overlooking the village using stones from the
demolished fortress. The ravens as guardians of the maiden watched over her as she ruled the area from
her castle. The women of Holloko are descendents of that beauty and are said to have magical powers
over men.

From Holloko, we drove east to Eger, a town famous for it’s wine, specifically Bikaver (Bull’s Blood).
The area where the vineyards are located is intriguingly called The Valley of the Beautiful Women. I
didn’t have to twist Stani’s arm to go there! We stayed in a campground called Tulipan Kemping owned
by a real character that I nicknamed Sadam. He claimed that his wine was the best in all the valley. I
think he was shocked when my facial expression told otherwise when I had a taste. We did however
discover some really delicious wines, both red and white, in one of the wine cellars in the valley.

Romania and Bulgaria (May 28-June 1) – Posted by Stani on June 11, 2010
I don’t know many Americans that have been to Romania and Bulgaria and these are the first countries
of our trip that I’ve also never been to before. We keep saying, “Now our trip has really started”, and
upon entering Romania we say it again.

Romania and Bulgaria were in many ways our first real tests of the trip. We would visit places that are
less wealthy and have different histories and cultures than Western Europe (What images does
Transylvania bring to mind versus London or Frankfurt?). We were also worried about theft, especially
car theft. Our guidebooks, friends that had been here, and friends that hadn’t, all told us to watch our
belongings and our car. A Czech friend summarized the common message with, “Every one of my
friends that drove to Bulgaria with their own car came back without it.” An Austrian friend said
basically the same about Romania. Since our car is our home and our trip, we were concerned.

On May 28th we hit the road early to hopefully reach our destination in Romania – Sighisoara,
Transylvania, from where we were staying in Hungary. The roads to the border are fine and the border
crossing also goes smoothly. Romania is part of the EU but a real border is in place because Romania
isn’t part of the Schengen agreement. We give our passports and vehicle registration to the official that
comes to our car, wait 5 minutes, and are told to go on. The rest of our drive, nearly 12 hours, is pretty
tough though.

Horse-drawn buggie

The road passes through countless villages and most of the time we can only average 30 mph. Then
traffic becomes heavy and we really notice the great variety of vehicles using the road, ranging from
horse-drawn buggies to giant intra-EU lorries, all using the same narrow road passing through the center
of every village. In addition to the folks trying to get through town, there are plenty of residents sitting,
strolling or playing, chickens scratching in the dirt, and cattle being herded through town as well. One
stretch of road, perhaps 10 miles long takes us about an hour because in addition to the congestion, the
road is littered with the biggest potholes I’ve ever seen. Not sure what happens if your tire drops into a
square-edged, 18” deep, 2 feet diameter hole, but I think it’s more than a flat tire or a bent wheel. And
there aren’t just one or two holes like this; we swerve around thousands of these while semi-trucks, farm
tractors and communist era “Dacia” cars (Kirstin says they look like old Saabs; I’m too much of a Saab
snob to agree) do the same in the opposite direction. No mistakes allowed here!

As we approach Sighisoara the road becomes an excellent, fun-to-drive climbing mountain road and we
are pleasantly surprised about Sighisoara and our home for the night, Camping Aquarius, which has
grassy spots, internet, is right downtown and has gated access. On our way to dinner we walk past the
stunningly beautiful Orthodox Cathedral and have some delicious stone-oven baked pizza with
Romanian Ciuc beer and a straight-on view of the illuminated Sighisoara Citadel, the walled city where
Vlad Dracula was born.

Sighisoara Orthodox Cathedral

The next day (May 29th) we go inside the Sighisoara Citadel, admire the clock tower and see where
Vlad ‘Tepes’ (the impailer) Draculea was born and lived until he was 4. Vlad Dracula the historical
figure was the ruling prince of Wallachia from 1456-62 and 1476-77. His nickname came from the
terrible and inhumane way he tortured and executed his enemies including the Turks. His cruelty was
not unusual during the times, however. Vlad Dracula the fictional character was created in “Count
Dracula”, a book published by the Irish writer Bram Stoker around 1897.

Vlad ‘Tepes’ Dracula

Clock tower and gate of Sighisoara Citadel

Shoemaker’s shop in Sighisoara Citadel

In the afternoon we visit Biertan fortified Lutheran church nearby and then on to Bran, Transylvania,
where we camp at Vampire Camping. On May 30th we visit Bran Castle, a.k.a Dracula’s Castle because
of its architecture (Dracula probably only visited here once).

Bran Castle, a.k.a. Dracula’s Castle

After lunch we drive south out of Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains and then east to the Black
Sea, where we set up camp in Mamia, a resort town that my dad visited about 50 years ago. On the 31st
we walk along the beach, pack up the car and make our way south. We stop at a nice beach cove along
the way and I enjoy some “Crap” with bread. Crap tastes like a salmon cream cheese spread and I hope
that is what it really is.

Camping in Mamia

Stepping in the turquoise water of the Black Sea

Enjoying some "Crap"

Later that afternoon we arrive at the Romania-Bulgaria border. The Romanian border official takes our
passports and registration, but after 5-10 minutes another official comes back and tells us that we
entered Romania in a Mercedes! We immediately say, “no, no, no!” I say “Toyota, no Mercedes. I have
never owned a Mercedes.” After a little more of “Mercedes, no Mercedes” he walks away again and we
start to worry. We look for some proof that we entered Romania in our Toyota. After a while the first
official brings us our documents and says bye-bye. Phew! Don’t know what that was about but I’m glad
it didn’t turn into a big mess.

Relieved to be through the border, we drive south into Bulgaria, the southeast most part of the EU.
We’ve come a long way from Dunnet Head, Scotland. We stop for lunch on a park bench and then have
coffee in the park café, keeping an eye on our car, and are soon joined by a couple of British ex-pats that
both comment on how great the schools here are with kids. Back on the road we continue to admire the
incredibly rich bird life here, including this stork’s nest with what must be two dozen sparrows’ nests
built on its underside.

Stork’s nest with maybe two dozen sparows’ nests built on its underside

We continue driving south along the Black Sea coast and then stay at Neptune Camping, an old
communist summer cabin settlement just south of Varna. The only other people staying there are some
Dutch cyclists that have travelled extensively in Eastern Europe. They say that foreigners usually stay at
the resort up the road. “Only Bulgarians and westerners with something wrong with them stay here.”
There’s a grassy areas for tents and the lush trees are filled with birds but the facilities – oh-my! The
cabins haven’t been fixed up or even painted in maybe 50 years and everything is damp and rotting. I
wear my heavy hiking boots to use the toilet, sink or “kitchen” area, which looks more like a torture
chamber to me.

"Kitchen" area

Kitchen soap

I find it interesting to see such a place, Kirstin was just grossed out. There are hundreds of cabins in
clusters organized by village name. I presume party members of each village got a settlement of cabins
where they would spend their summer vacations. They didn’t pay anything for this but also didn’t have
any say in where their settlement would be or when they could go. Central planning, not independent
travel. In earlier times the government ran and took care of the cabins, but now the place is a crumbing
city in the woods. We go to sleep, happy to be next to our car.

Crumbling city of communist era summer cabins

The next morning we continue south to the Turkish border. We stop for lunch at a little chapel just off
the road. It’s a great place for a picnic. Good thing we have 4WD though.

Exiting our picnic spot

Final thoughts on Romania and Bulgaria
Now our trip has certainly begun. We visited two countries that we’ve never been to before, seen some
beautiful things, learned a bit of history, walked in the footsteps of my dad, held onto our car and
belongings (and actually never felt unsafe or that our things were in any danger of being stolen),
experienced some drama with the condition of the roads and nearly had trouble on the Romanian border.
We are doing fine and ready for more. Turkey and Middle East, here we come!

Cartographer’s status report (May 5th to June 1st) – Posted by Stani Sunday, June 20, 2010
After nearly a month on the road we are where we planned to be. We successfully crossed Europe from
the northern most point of mainland Britain (Dunnet Head, Scotland) to the southeastern most point of
Europe (the western bank of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey). We have had a great time and are so
happy and thankful that everything went well and that we have the ability and desire to continue our trip
into Turkey and the Middle East. Stay tuned…

Our route so far

Istanbul-Where West Meets East – Posted by Kirstin Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We crossed the border into Turkey at a small crossing near the Black Sea. I had read and heard that the
crossing into Turkey could take around 3 hours due to the long lines. To my surprise and delight, there
was no line at all! After stopping at a booth and showing our passports, we were instructed to park our
car and enter the building to get our visas. Once inside, we met the friendliest border officials who
guided us first to the visa window where we paid 15 euros each and got our visas in a matter of minutes,
no forms, no questions, just smiles. Then we went to the second stop, customs where we showed our
vehicle registration, title and driver’s license. The official looked over the paperwork, handed it back
with a smile and we were on our way. We couldn’t believe the beautiful highway that welcomed us to
Turkey. It was such a difference from what we drove on in Romania and Bulgaria. I almost wanted to
get out and kiss the asphalt, but I restrained myself. We drove to Selimpasa to a campground about
35km west of Istanbul called Istanbul Mocamp. When we drove in we were greeted by a choir of frogs
who lived in a pond at our campground. Their sound was really unique and incredibly loud both of
which made us laugh. It was so nice, especially after the place we stayed at the night before in Bulgaria.
I was so happy to be in Turkey and excited about all the adventures that awaited us here. While enjoying
the sunset and a meal of Kraft macaroni and cheese which I brought from home, the load speakers from
a nearby mosque’s minaret announced the ezan (the call to prayer). In Turkey there are five calls to
prayer each day (sunrise, noon, midday, sunset and night), so we would hear the ezan many more times
throughout our trip, but this first one was especially memorable.

Istanbul (June 1-3)

The next day we headed into the city of Istanbul. A Dutch couple we met the night before at our
campground suggested that we do what they did and leave our car at the campground, take public
transportation and stay overnight in Istanbul since the commute takes many hours. We followed their
suggestion and were glad. After two different buses and a tram winding through packed streets, we
finally arrived in the center of Istanbul 3.5 hours later. We checked into Hotel Ararat in the Sultanahmet
district. This area is “Old Istanbul” and is designated a Unesco World Heritage site. It was a perfect
location to stay since the majority of sights are located here. As a bonus, our hotel had an incredible
view of one of the main sights, the Blue Mosque, from its lovely rooftop terrace.

Breakfast at Hotel Ararat

One of our main things to do in Istanbul was to pick up our visas for Iran at the Iranian Consulate, so
after checking into the hotel we headed straight to the consulate where we left our passports and were
told to return the next morning. With the rest of the day ahead of us, I decided to visit one of the famous
sites, Aya Sofya. This building was built as a church by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD and it reigned as
the greatest church in the Christian world until the Ottoman Conquest in 1453 when Mehmet the
Conqueror had it converted into a mosque. It remained a mosque until 1935 when Ataturk, the father of
modern Turkey, made it a museum.

Aya Sofya

Inside Aya Sofya

In the evening, Stani and I visited the Blue Mosque. It’s impressive from the outside but even more
breathtaking from the inside with its blue tiles numbering in the tens of thousands, hundreds of windows
and huge central prayer space. This mosque was built between 1606-1616 to rival and even surpass Aya
Sofya in grandeur and beauty. We find the mosque truly breathtaking. Afterwards we walked through a
bazaar with shops selling plates, tiles, carpets, hanging lanterns and other Turkish goods and on to a
street filled with restaurants and cafes. We found a nice restaurant and ate dinner on the rooftop terrace
with a great view of the Blue Mosque on one side and the Sea of Marmara on the other.

Ceiling of Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque from rooftop restaurant

The next morning we went to the Iranian Consulate and waiting for us were our passports, visas for Iran
and a plate full of cookies. We happily accepted two cookies and were on our way to see more of
Istanbul. Topkapi Palace was our first stop. The palace of the Ottoman sultans from 1453-1839 is
definitely a must see! There are four courtyards, ornate buildings and exhibits of costumes, weapons and
gifts given by other countries which all give a glimpse of the lavish lifestyles of the sultans.

Imperial Council Chamber within Topkapi Palace

Young boys dressed up for a ritual of passage ceremony

The highlight of the palace, architecturally speaking, is visiting the harem. Because there is an additional
admission price, the crowds thin out significantly which was a welcome relief. This area was the private
living area of the sultan, his wives, concubines, other family members and eunuch servants. I can only
imagine that living in such a place would be a daily soap opera, but Harem life on the other hand was
governed by tradition, obligation and ceremony. Interestingly the word harem really just means private.

Sultan Murat III's private chamber inside the Harem

After the palace we stopped for a quick lunch of pide (Turkish pizza) and then walked to the Galata
Bridge with views of the Golden Horn on one side and the Bosphorus Strait on the other. The Bosphorus
divides European Istanbul (the West) from Asian Istanbul (the East). In the early evening we headed
back by public transport to our campground, this time it took us only 3 hours to get back. When we put
our heads down at the end of the day, we were exhausted but full of good feelings for having the
opportunity to be able to experience such an incredible city as Istanbul with its kind people, history and

View of the Bosphorus from Galata Bridge

Sorry for the delay – Posted by Kirstin Friday, July 16, 2010
We apologize for the long delay since our last post, but our blog site was blocked while we were in Iran,
Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. We'll do our best to get caught up!

The Aeagan Coast-Ayvalik, Selcuk and Ephesus – Posted by Kirstin Friday, July 16, 2010

Ayvalik (June 4):

After leaving Istanbul, we pretty much just drove all day. In the evening, we arrived in the coastal town
of Ayvalik and found a campground just as the sun was starting to set. Two men walked up to us, and
we asked if we could stay here. They spoke no English but a little German, the shorter rounder guy who
I nicknamed “Jabba the Hut” because of his voice, helped us find a spot. The place was not all that great
and there was no running water in the bathrooms, but the view of the Aeagan Sea was a nice treat. We
ate dinner and went to bed after a long day.

View of Aegean Sea from our campsite

In the morning, we put on our swimsuits and took a bath in the Aegean Sea – a pretty cool way to start
the day – then we packed up and headed south towards Selcuk. Along the way, Stani was excited to find
a gas station with a car wash, so we filled up with fuel and the nice attendant helped wash the car. He
even added new soap to the brush for us. After a good five minutes of scrubbing and washing, the car
looked much better. We were happy, but the attendant motioned to Stani that he needed to scrub more. I
laughed inside at the thought of someone telling Stani he needed to clean better!

The 4Runner’s second bath of the trip

Selcuk and Ephesus (June 5-6):

We arrived in the early afternoon in Selcuk, a town where the disciple John along with Mary, the mother
of Jesus, settled at the end of her life. In the northwest part of the city there’s a hill called Ayasulak Hill.
It was here that John wrote his Gospel (the fourth book in the New Testament of the Bible) around AD
95. His tomb is said to be just below the hill. To mark this significant place, Emperor Justinian built a
magnificent church called the Basilica of St. John in the 6th century. The church is now just ruins, but
it’s pretty humbling to walk among the marble knowing the significance of this place in Christianity.

View of the citadel surrounding Ayasulak Hill

The tomb of St. John

We found our campground, Garden Motel and Camping, a nice place with a large grassy lot surrounded
by many plum and olive trees. From our spot we could look right up at Ayasulak Hill. As we got
situated, one of the campground workers brought is a plate of fresh apricots and plums from their
orchard to welcome us.

Stani with the welcome fruit at our campsite

After setting up our tent, we began the 3km walk from Selcuk to Ephesus on a nice path shaded by
mulberry trees. On the way, we stopped at the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, dedicated to the ancient
Anatolian fertility goddess. This temple in its day was the largest in the world (even bigger than the
Parthenon in Athens) and therefore earned the status as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Today however it’s a little hard to get too excited since only 1 column of the original 127 is still

Temple of Artemis

Afterward we continued walking on the same path and soon arrived in Ephesus, the best preserved
classical city in the eastern Mediterranean. Roman Ephesus was the capital of Asia Minor and it grew
into quite an impressive city. Marble streets, pillars, statues, a library and the impressive Great Theater
capable of holding 25,000 people are all still visible. The Apostle Paul lived in Ephesus for a short time
and started a church here around AD 60. Christianity flourished in Ephesus, but there were many of the
merchants and others in power who weren’t happy about the change in religion since a lot of money was
made in the selling of idols of the Goddess Artemis. As a result, Paul was driven out of Ephesus. He (or
someone using the name of Paul) later wrote a letter to the Ephesians, which is the 10th book in the New
Testament of the Bible, encouraging the Christians to be unified and to accept believers who have
different backgrounds. What an amazing experience to get to stand in such a historic place!
Unfortunately it began to rain, and Stani was not feeling well, so we took a taxi back to our campground.

The Great Theater of Ephesus

The next two days, Stani was really sick with what we think was the flu. Not a fun thing while staying in
a tent! I stayed close to the tent and left briefly to eat and visit The Basilica of St. John. While hanging
out at the campground, I was so happy to meet and spend some time chatting with a retired British
couple, Gilroy and Shelia who were travelling around Turkey in their RV. They were so kind making
me tea and sharing their cookies while we exchanged travel stories.

Sick in Turkey (June 5-18) – Posted by Stani on Saturday, July 17, 2010
Unfortunately I got really sick in Turkey. At about noon on June 5th we arrive in Selcuk, Turkey and set
up our tent at Garden Motel and Camping. Other than the foul smelling bathrooms it’s a nice place. We
are right next to Ayasuluk Hill, where John is believed to have written the Gospel of John and also just a
few kilometers from the Temple of Artemis and the very impressive ruin of Ephesus, an important
Greek and Roman city. This is the city to whose residents Paul wrote a letter (book of Ephesians),
complaining that they were worshiping and selling idols of Artemis and calling for unity withing the

As we walk toward Ephesus I start to develop flu symptoms including pretty severe aches and pains. I
have to sit down many times on the way there and while walking around the ruins. Pretty soon I cannot
walk more than 100m without resting, and even this is painful. How can it be that I can run 50 km or
ride 100 miles but now I can’t walk more than 100 meters? After visiting Ephesus we take a taxi back to
the campground and I lie down to rest. I have a fever, headache, and even more severe aches and pains.
My joints hurt, my back hurts, everything hurts that evening and during the night.


In the morning of June 6th, hopeful that things would improve, I am disappointed that my aches and
pains are overwhelmed by even more severe stomach cramps. How can a stomach hurt so much? All day
long I don’t eat or drink anything at all, have really bad stomach cramps, diarrhea, and I throw up
several times after taking cipro (an antibiotic that is good at treating stomach infections). I stay in the
tent all day, just getting up to visit that foul smelling bathroom about every hour. My severe stomach
cramps continue all night and I am unable to sleep. The cramps last for 20 seconds, then 20 seconds rest,
over and over again. I am really, really suffering.

A ruin of a Roman public latrine – where I might be right now if I lived 1500 years ago.

The next day, June 7th, my flu continues but after 36 hours of lying in the tent and using that foul
smelling bathroom I cannot stand it anymore. Kirstin drives us to Pamukkale, our next destination about
200 km away, where we check into Hotel Venus. I have a bed, a clean bathroom and a wonderful room.
It’s one of the nicest places of our trip. I continue to have the severe stomach cramps, although now in a
more comfortable place. It’s been over 48 hours since I ate or drank anything. I try to drink a tablespoon
of water, but even this brings even more severe stomach cramps. The night is another painful one.

Hotel Venus in Pamukkale.

The next morning (June 8th), now almost 3 days after my flu began, I could eat a little breakfast and
have small sips of water or soda. My stomach cramps appear only about once per hour and are less
severe. I have bad neck pains but am able to treat these with Advil. So I decide to walk to the
Travertines and Hierapolis (both are amazing), but end up over-doing it and suffer for the rest of the day.

Starting on June 9th I am able to drink and eat small amounts of mild food and am able to act like a
traveler again (rather than a torture subject). But for the rest of the week I continue to have diarrhea and
then the entire next week I have a weak stomach, intermittent diarrhea, neck aches and flu symptoms.
Ug! It wouldn’t be until the day we would go hiking in the Alamut Valley in Iran, 2 weeks after I got
sick, that I would be well again.

What a lot of pain! Just something I guess I had to go through, I guess. Thankfully I’m better now and
can continue our trip with gumption.

Anatolia-Pamukkale (June 7-8) & Konya (June 9) – Posted by Kirstin on Saturday, July 17, 2010
Stani wasn’t better, but we decided that it might help to get a change of scenery, so we packed up and
headed east into the region of Anatolia. Our destination was the town of Pamukkale, which is famous for
its unique travertine (calcium carbonate) terraces and pools as well as the ruins of the ancient Roman spa
city called Hierapolis. The restorative qualities of the calcium rich waters of Pamukkale have a centuries
old reputation. Maybe they could help Stani get better! Once in town, we discovered Venus Hotel which
was just off the main road and thought we had arrived in heaven. The room was gorgeous, the price was
very reasonable and the staff were so kind. After several days of camping and being sick, we needed a
break and Venus Hotel was the perfect gift!

The next morning we headed off to explore the travertine terraces. Without question, I can say that this
was the coolest “water park” I have ever been to, and it’s all natural too! The travertines were formed
when warm mineral water cooled and deposited calcium as it cascaded over cliff edges. In an effort to
help preserve this amazing site, only certain areas of the travertines are open, and you must take off your
shoes before you begin walking on the terraces.

The travertine terraces of Pamukkale

Stani in one of the travertine pools

Kirstin and Stani in Pamukkale

Behind the travertines are the ruins of the ancient Roman spa city of Hierapolis. It was a place where
people came for a miracle cure. A theatre, agora, communal latrines, a church, a Temple of Apollo and a
huge necropolis (cemetery) are all still visible. The center of Hierapolis was probably the sacred pool
which is now a swimming pool where you can bathe in warm water surrounded by submerged sections
of ancient marble columns and statues. For various reasons, including price and hygiene, we decided not
to take a dip.

The ancient spa city of Hierapolis

The next morning we continued eastward towards Konya, home of the whirling dervishes and the
Mevlana Museum. On the way, we saw a Toyota dealership and decided to stop to get an oil change.
Luckily there was a young guy who spoke some English, and Stani was able to communicate what we
needed. Before we drove off, one of the workers presented me with a rose. I couldn’t believe it!
Occasionally I would get a rose from the service manager, Mac at the Saab dealership in Ann Arbor, if
they were having a special customer appreciation day, but this was such a nice surprise to get one in

As we got closer to Konya, rain was falling steadily. Once inside the city, it was clear this was not just a
passing shower. To add to the challenge, the only map we had of this city of 762,000 people was a small
one in our Lonely Planet guidebook. There were signs pointing to the city’s main attraction, the Mevlana
Museum, so I kept following those. Our guidebook listed a hotel near the museum which seemed like a
good candidate, now we just had to find it. The further we got into the city, the heavier the storm
showers fell. I had experienced monsoons when I was in India in the summer of 1999, and this rain felt
very much like a monsoon. In India I was on foot, now I was driving. I’m not sure which was worse! By
the time we got to the center of the city it was full blown rush hour. Cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles,
people pushing carts piled high with vegetables, and people on foot hurrying home from work. It was
chaos, and here I was trying to just get through it all. We finally found our hotel and by this time it had
stopped raining, but the next challenge was to figure out how to get our car to the hotel. We spent about
an hour hour driving around before we finally were able to find the hotel again and the nice man who
worked there came to our car and guided us to the hotel. Exhausting!!! I think I ate a piece of bread and
went to sleep.

On the streets in Konya after the rain

The next morning we walked to the Mevlana Museum, a former lodge of the whirling dervishes. The
whirling dervishes are an order of Sufi Islam who are followers of Celaleddin Rumi. Rumi was a great
philosopher, poet and mystic who lived from 1207-1273. Later in his life, he became known as Mevlana
which means “our guide”. Tolerance is central to Mevlana’s teachings.

The Mevlana Museum

The whirling dervishes’ worship ceremony is a ritual dance representing union with God. The dervishes
wear a long white robe with a full skirt covered with a black cloak and a conical felt hat. The white robe
symbolizes their shrouds, the black their worldly tombs and the hats their tombstones. Their ceremony
begins with the leader saying a prayer for Mevlana and reciting a verse from the Quran. The dervishes
then walk in a circle around the room three times and drop their black cloaks to symbolize their release
from worldly attachments. One by one they then spin out onto the floor with their arms folded at their
chests. This symbolizes leaving earthly life and being reborn in a mystical union with God. They then
move their arms holding their right arm up to receive the blessing of heaven and their left arm down to
symbolize the blessings coming to earth. This dance is repeated over and over again. Finally the leader
chants passages from the Quran which seals the mystical union with God. Unfortunately we didn’t get to
see the ceremony live, only on a video they had on display at the museum. At the museum we also
visited the mausoleum with Mevlana’s tomb and several rooms exhibiting Qurans, prayer rugs and other
Islamic artifacts.

The Mevlana Museum

Before leaving Konya, we stocked up on some groceries at a nearby supermarket and Stani managed to
find a barber to get his hair cut. Between the scissors, razor, lighter, lotions and cologne, it was probably
one of the most thorough haircuts he’s ever had.

A visit to the Turkish barber

Eastern Turkey (June 12-15) – Posted by Kirstin on Saturday, July 17, 2010
I was sad as we left Cappadocia since this meant we had visited all of the major places I had wanted to
see in Turkey. Now the remaining days would be mostly driving days with the destination being the
Gurbulak/Bazargan border to Iran. Originally our plan had been to head east to Erzurum, north towards
the Kackar Mountains and then east to the border via Kars and Dogubayazt, but since we had lost some
days with Stani being sick, we had to skip the northern route and just head east.

There was a significant difference as we ventured further east. The roads were much worse and travel
times took longer. Because established campgrounds were scarce, we weren’t sure where we would stay
and what facilities would be available. The first night we started to get a little nervous about where we
would sleep, but ended up finding a sign just as the sun started to set that had a picture of a fish and the
word “camping” written on it. This made me think of the story in the Bible where Jesus performs the
miracle of feeding 5,000 hungry people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish – this was a good reminder to
me to have faith that God will take care of us. The sign led us to a fish restaurant where the owner
happily pointed to a hill where we could set up our tent. I’m not entirely sure if they normally had
people camp here (camping may actually mean picnicking), but it was a fine spot and we were happy to
have a place to sleep. When we tried to pay him, he declined.

Sign to our "campsite"

The next morning, we took a short walk to a lake near our campsite, and on our way back, we met a herd
of cows and their owner. He probably wondered what the heck we were doing here! No one was around
when we were ready to leave our campsite, so we left some money folded in a piece of paper with the
words tesekkur ederim (thank you) written on the outside.

Kirstin meets the cows

The road started out great, and it was a real treat having a smooth surface for a change. Unfortunately
Stani got a speeding ticket– 106km/h in a 90km/h which we were told to pay at the border. We slowed
down and soon the smooth road was just a memory and the bad roads returned. After a long day of
driving, we finally reached the city of Erzurum. We found a hotel and rested a bit in the air conditioned
room. We ate a bread, cheese and cucumber dinner in the room and then headed out to explore the city.
The streets were full of people, shops and cafes, and there was an exciting energy all around.

Road in Eastern Turkey

From Erzurum, we pushed on to the town of Dogubayazt. This town is famous for Mt. Ararat (5137m),
Turkey’s highest mountain and the supposed resting place of Noah’s Ark. For us it was also very
significant because it would be our last night in Turkey before attempting to cross the border into Iran. I
was full of all kinds of emotions now that we had reached this pivotal point of our tip, but to be honest,
the dominant one was nervousness. On the outskirts of town, we found Lale Zar campground which is
owned by two friends (one Kurd and one Dutch). From the campground you could see a beautiful castle
called the Ishak Pasa Palace perched high up on a cliff. We drove there and were quickly swarmed by a
mob of school kids as we exited the car. At first they were cute wanting to take photos and say hello, but
they soon got annoying pulling on our arms and asking for money. We walked quickly trying to lose our
new “friends”. Unfortunately the palace was closed, so we took a few quick photos and dashed back to
the car with a line of school kids nipping at our heels.

Ishak Pasa Palace

Back at the campground, we met two other foreign couples, both from Austria. One of the couples had
just driven from Iran, so we were eager to hear their experiences. They had nothing but good things to
say about Iran which helped ease my nervousness a bit. On this trip, they had also driven their VW
camper through Pakistan, India and Nepal and were now on their way back to Austria. The other couple
was in a massive military looking vehicle equipped with a rooftop tent. At one point before our trip I had
suggested we consider getting a rooftop tent, but seeing theirs made me glad that we didn’t pursue this
option. They were heading north from Turkey into Georgia and Azerbaijan. It was nice to meet some
other travelers and exchange stories.

Turkeys at our campground

Entering the Islamic Republic of Iran (June 15) – Posted by Stani on Thursday, July 22, 2010
Today is a really, really big day for us. We are about to drive our car into Iran. We are a couple of
Americans on their own, in their own car, wanting to drive across Iran as tourists. It’s really difficult to
describe how this feels. My emotions are so contradictory that I can’t put them into words (feeble
attempts: doubting confidence that we’ll be fine; I want to come home and say "I told you Iranians treat
people kindly even if they disagree with what their government does"; I really desire to visit this
incredibly significant and interesting country). But I am here and I want to go forward: visiting Iran is
central to our trip, both geographically, and what we want to see and experience. It is an essential part of
what this trip is about.

Did I work really hard to prepare myself for visiting Iran? Yes. Am I reassured by having Iranian friends
that are wonderful people, knowing that Iranian hospitality is legendary, having friends of friends that
visited Iran (although not Americans) that had a wonderful experience, knowing what is said about
visiting Iran by our Lonely Planet Guide book, by Rick Steves’ documentary, and other sources, and
knowing that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has approved our itinerary and guide? Yes, these things are
reassuring and give me confidence.

But am I also worried? Yes. The voices of some of my closest family members and friends, warning and
pleading for me not to go for various reasons are crystal clear in my mind. The story of the three
American hikers that appear to have mistakenly crossed into Iran from Iraq about 9 months ago and
have been held by Iran ever since rests heavily on my mind. Plus the newest round of U.N. sanctions
(backed by the U.S.) against Iran over Iran’s nuclear program went into effect just a couple of weeks
ago! What are we doing?

Leaving Turkey

Our day begins in Dogubayazit, Turkey, in sight to Mt. Ararat, the mountain that Noah’s Ark is said to
have landed on. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep because we didn’t realize (and weren’t told) that our
camping spot was also a popular evening picnicking place for the town and the site of a concert tonight!
Yes, at about 9:00 p.m. our tent was surrounded by singing people for most of the rest of the night.
Eventually the people went home but then crows took over at 4:30 a.m., who were nearly as loud as the
band was. We get up at 5:00, are on the road at 6:45, and arrive on the Turkish side of the border at 7:30
(9:00 Iranian time).

Mt. Ararat, very near the Turkey/Iran border

Things go smoothly on the Turkish side of the border except for the roving “helper” that cons us into
giving him our passports, car documents, my speeding ticket and money to pay for it. We soon figure
out he is not a border official at all, just some guy “helping” us that is surely going to demand some
large payment for his service. About half way through the process we tell him we don’t want his help
and that we thought he was an official. He complains but we hold our ground and are able to get our
documents and money back. After finishing all of the formalities ourselves, Kirstin puts on her
headscarf and we get into the car to drive across the border. A Turkish policeman opens the gate on the
Turkish side for us and as we roll past him, just a few yards from Iran, he leans towards me and says in a
low voice, “Good luck in Iran. You will need it.”

Entering Iran

A large Iranian soldier in fatigues opens the gate on the Iranian side of the border. He professionally
welcomes us to Iran, shows us where to park our car and tells us that he will take us to be fingerprinted.
He says it is the same for Iranians coming to the US. We say no problem and that we understand. He
takes us to an office and a man dressed in dark and light blue welcomes us to Iran and gives us a candy.
He asks us about our plans – things like how long we will stay, where we will exit, and if we have
Carnet de Passage for our vehicle. When we tell him that we need to buy insurance to take the place of a
Carnet de Passage he seems to indicate this isn’t a problem. We think he is a police officer but later he
tells us that he is the tourist office. He asks us if we have a guide and we tell him our guide is on the
way. At this point we call our guide, Darius, who tells us he is on a train, on his way to the border.

Then a policeman (dressed in more of a green and yellow uniform) asks us to come with him for
fingerprinting. It is explained to us again that the fingerprinting is the same for Iranians that come to the
US. We reply no problem and that we understand. In the policeman’s office our passports and visas are
copied, we fill out a short form, wait 5-10 minutes, are fingerprinted and shown where we can wash our
hands. The policeman is nice and asks what I do for a living. He doesn’t understand but later he comes
back with the tourist office guy who translates for him. Back outside, I ask the soldier if I may take a
photo of the Welcome to Iran sign at the border. I am surprised that he says yes because normally border
areas may not be photographed. All this takes maybe 20 minutes. Now all we need is Carnet de Passage
insurance for our car and for our guide to arrive. Unfortunately both of these take a much longer time.

At the border.

What is Carnet de Passage insurance?

In the past many countries required vehicles that were temporarily brought into the country to have a
Carnet de Passage. This is a document that promises that the owner of the vehicle will take the vehicle
back out of the country with them. The owner puts down a deposit that covers all importation fees,
which the owner only get back after the vehicle is removed from the country. Today very few countries
still require this, but Iran is one of these countries.

It is not possible to obtain a Carnet de Passage in the US (I guess not many Americans bring their cars to
Iran, Pakistan, India, or the handful of other countries requiring a Carnet de Passage), but the Canadian
Automobile Association will sell it to Americans. For our 2002 Toyota 4Runner they charge a non-
refundable $550 processing fee and then Iran requires that a $31,300 deposit be made to a Canadian
bank that is sent to Iran if the car does not leave Iran for any reason, even if it is stolen or breaks down
and cannot be repaired. Since we could not afford this I did some more research and heard rumors that
one may be able to buy insurance at the border to take the place of a Carnet de Passage. The insurance
company covers the risk of the car not coming out of the country and charges a premium for this. I asked
IranianVisa, our visa service and guide company, about this and they told me it costs $200 so we may be
able to visit Iran after all. It all sounded a bit sketchy (who is this insurance company? why can’t I
contact them?) but I couldn’t find a better alternative.

Waiting for our guide

I told IranianVisa that we would be at the border at 9:00 and they said our guide would help us with
border formalities, but our guide didn’t arrive until 12:30. Almost from the time we cross the border we
are hounded by “Boris and the Muscle Man” – more on them later. To try to get away from them we go
inside to the waiting salon and meet some Iranians waiting to go to Turkey. It is a group of women with
adorable little girls. All of them are really sweet. Kirstin gives the girls some stickers from home and
shows them her travel album with pictures of our wedding, our house, our hobbies, etc. It makes
communicating without the benefits of a common language possible.

When our guide Darius (pronounced “Dariush”) arrives at 12:30, I tell him we’ve been waiting for 3 ½
hours and he politely explains that he is innocent, that the agency didn’t contact him until 2 days ago and
put him on the late train that he was on. (Back at home IranianVisa told me that I had to pay the full
amount early because our guide had to be contracted 2 months ago). Darius turns out to be a wonderful
guide and a great person and I recommend him to anyone (Darius Ghasemi,,
098-912-370-4516, lives in Tehran). Despite having to wait for so long, we are very happy to have him
here with us to help us with our Carnet de Passage insurance and dealing with Boris and the Muscle

Boris and the Muscle Man

Almost as soon as we crossed the border we keep getting approached by this man we nicknamed
“Boris”. Little do we know we would be dealing with him for the next 6 ½ hours! Boris is a middle-
aged, Russian-looking character carrying a locked briefcase with him where ever he goes. He is wearing
pointed leather shoes, shiny silver slacks and light colored dress shirt. He keeps asking us about our car,
where we are going and for how long, and saying we must buy insurance from him.

Boris has an associate that we name “Muscle Man”. He is wearing black jeans and a tight t-shirt with
very short sleeves. He has a darker complexion than Boris, but also doesn’t look or sound Iranian either.
As his nickname implies, he has lots of upper-body muscles. Boris and Muscle Man make quite the team
– first Boris whispers something to us about this being our last chance to get insurance, then Muscle
Man barks at us to come inside, move our car, or that their “office” is about to close. Hanging around
with these two are a couple of other guys, one young fellow dressed in super-slick, mafia-style clothes,
complete with a shinny reddish shirt that is half-way unbuttoned and another man, who is the quite one
(maybe he’s the apprentice).

We hold our ground and refuse to talk to this suspicious group, even when Muscle Man tells us that their
“office” is about to close. It’s the grown up version of “mommy tells me not to talk to strangers”, which
in our case is “I won’t talk to suspicious looking, mafia-fashion wearing, briefcase-carrying, no-office
insurance salesmen asking for large amounts of cash on the Iranian border that I can’t communicate

When Darius arrives we are so relieved and Boris, Muscle Man and the other two are on him in a
second. Turns out they speak a dialect of Turkish and Darius cannot understand what they say to each
other either. Unfortunately IranianVisa hasn’t told Darius anything about Carnet de Passage insurance
(even though I have been stressing this for months), but at least Darius can communicate with them in
Farsi and hopefully knows how to best deal with them. Poor Darius is probably more tired than us,
having been on a night train and then another train all morning.

So what’s the scoop on our Carnet de Passage insurance? Darius tells us that there is no insurance office
and these are the guys we must deal with. They sell Carnet de Passage insurance and it is somehow
underwritten by an insurance company in Tehran. The insurance company does not sell insurance
directly to individuals so all we can do is deal with this bunch. I realize our options are to pay them
whatever they ask for or turn around and head back into Turkey. Boris tells Darius that rates have gone
up (even though IranianVisa said they confirmed the insurance a week ago) and the cost is now 600
Euros ($800), not $200 as IranianVisa told me (for 13 days!). I speak to Hamid at IranianVisa and he
tells me there is nothing he can do, insurance isn’t his business. I ask if he can cover part of the rate
increase and he promises he will check his margin and try to help (he never called me back or return my
calls). This is way more than we budgeted and what we can afford. Yes, we have the money now but
will we run out of funds in Siberia?

After a lot of waiting, thinking and asking Boris and Co. if they can reduce the price, Muscle Man tells
me in his deep Russian-accented voice, “This is not my problem”. He speaks just a tiny bit of English
but knows this phrase. After a while they do give a small break and the price is reduced from 600 Euros
to $600 (or 480 Euros). I hand over the cash.

Can we go now?

After I pay the fee the forms begin. It takes roughly 90 minutes for the insurance team, now joined by an
impersonal woman behind a desk to fill out all of the forms, about 2 seconds for the customs official to
look them, and another 30 minutes of driving around with Muscle Man collecting seals and stamps from
various offices just past the border. The insurance packet grows to several dozen pieces of paper, each
with many stamps and signatures. Finally we are let go and at 3:30 Kirstin, Darius and I begin our drive
into Iran!

First Days in Iran (June 15-17) – Posted by Stani on Friday, August 6, 2010

First Day in Iran

On June 15th we entered Iran and what a day it was! We experienced more and had more adventure and
stress thrown at us than during any day of our trip until this point, even after driving through 9 countries
in the past 41 days. Today was a really, really challenging day that took all the strength I had.

The day started very early at a campground in Dogubayazit, Turkey, where the night before we ate
dinner amongst roaming farm animals, went to sleep in the middle of a concert, and woke up at 4:30
a.m. to a flock of very loud crows. Our day continued at the Turkey-Iran border with all the Boris and
Muscle Man Carnet de Passage commotion (see last blog entry). And then we had an 8 ½ hour drive
through Iran, mind you the first time I’ve driven here! Iran is certainly one of the more difficult places in
the world to drive until you learn their system of how things work. It’s much like learning a foreign
language – easy and makes some sense once you know it but you’re totally lost in the beginning.

Our itinerary had us driving 580 km to Takab today but since IranianVisa, our visa and guide agency,
put our guide on a late train to the border without telling us or adjusting our itinerary, our 3:30 p.m. start
from the border would make reaching Takab impossible. It took us the next 8 ½ hours to go 300 km to
Orumiyeh, when our first day would finally end at midnight. The road surface is pretty good for the
most part but the roads are small and winding so progress is slow. The scenery is beautiful though – dry,
mountainous terrain, small villages, no trees. Here some sheep are being led across the road.

Car in the gutter

I had read that in Iran many street gutters are on (not below) the surface and one must be careful not to
accidentally drive into one when parking or entering/exiting a driveway. The gutters are concrete gullies
about 18” deep, 18” wide at the top and slightly narrower at the bottom. As you can imagine, it would be
very bad if one or more wheels were to fall into such a gutter.

What I didn’t expect is that when these gutters cross the road sometimes not the entire length of the
gutter is covered with a grate. So I’m driving through a village with two lanes on our side of the road
and a car behind me obviously wants to go faster than me so I move over to the right lane. Just then one
of these gutters crosses the road and I don’t see (until the last instant) that the grate covering the gutter
doesn’t extend to the right lane. I can’t swerve back because the car is passing me so I hit the brakes to
try to stop or at least slow the car down before this 18” trench. Thankfully the pavement here was good
and I am nearly able stop the car, but the front right tire drops in. Thank goodness we have big tires and
our 4Runner has lots of ground clearance so the body of the car remains just over the edge of the gutter
by a fraction of an inch. In 4WD I’m able to back out and breathe a sigh of relief. I tell myself that I
can’t let something like this happen again – this could have been really bad!

Armenian Church

Along the way we stop at Qareh Kalisa (Church of St. Thaddaeus) near Maku. It is an Armenian church
that many ethnic Armenian pilgrims from Iran and Armenia visit every year. It is also Iran’s best
maintained medieval church. It’s great to see it; I’ve never seen a church in this style before.

Speed Limits in Iran

As we drive further I learn about speed limits in Iran. As in much of the world (unlike in the US), speed
limits are normally not posted – you just have to know when which limit applies. The default limits in
Iran are 60 km/h in a city or village, 95/85 out of the city during day/night, 110 km/h on 3-lane roads
and 120 km/h on expressways. These are the limits unless another speed is posted.

Just when I think I have it I get pulled over for speeding. I was passing a truck in a 95 zone. To get
around the truck safely before the next corner I accelerate to 110 as I pass it and this is when I was
caught. Darius our guide thankfully jumps out of the car and talks to the cop and gets me off. Thank you

So why am I one of the slowest cars on the road and I get pulled over for speeding? What’s the scoop,
Darius? He explains that in cities the limit is 60 and often posted at 40, but you should generally go 70.
The lower limits are not enforced and are only warnings to take care. It is fine to pass slower cars and
trucks on 2-lane roads, even in the middle of a city or village, but the 95 limit out of the city is a hard
limit. Don’t exceed 95 even while passing. See, easy, once you know.

Dinner on the Street

At about 8 p.m. we stop in one of the towns along the way for a quick dinner. We buy some barberie
bread (translated, barbarian bread) and non-alcoholic fruit beer. The bread is fresh (it came out of the
oven just a couple of minutes ago) and the beer is really, really tasty. Normally I don’t like non-
alcoholic beer but this is excellent. It tastes like wheat beer with a bit of fruit syrup. There are all sorts of
flavors to choose from. The bread is incredibly cheap, something like $0.10 per loaf. In a typical gesture
of Iranian hospitality, the shop owner we buy the beer from brings stools out for us to sit on, even giving
us his own stool. Below you can see our dinner in front of the shop.

After dinner it is dark and my neck hurts from our border experience, from driving so much and the
remnants of the flu I had in Turkey. Kirstin doesn’t want to drive so I take 2 Advil and get back behind
the wheel. Darius kindly offers to drive but he isn’t insured under our insurance policy so I’m stuck and
bear down to the task at hand. We have a long way to go.

I drive through my first city in Iran in the dark with people, cars and motorcycles everywhere. Darius
begins to explain in great detail about accidents in Iran. For damage to cars the police decide who is at
fault and they must pay. If you injure a pedestrian, motorcycle or moped the car driver is always guilty.
If case of a death the driver must pay “blood money”. For a man with a family blood money is about
$80,000, for others it is about $40,000. The driver must pay unless the family refuses because they don’t
need the money or say that no money can replace the lost person. I try to drive really carefully. It is
crazy driving through cities at night. I can’t explain what it is like but for a Westerner it is nerve racking

At about midnight we get to our simple but clean hotel in Orumiyeh. What a day! We survived the
border and out first day in Iran. Sleep!

World View of a Patriotic Iranian Veteran

On June 16th we drive from Orumiyek to Takab. On the way Darius tells us about the First Gulf War
(known as the Iran-Iraq War in the US), Iranian history and Iran’s often strained relationships with other
countries, from his perspective. He is a veteran of the First Gulf War and is proud of his country, Persian
history, and is generally supportive Iran’s current government. I don’t agree with everything he says but
it is great to hear his perspective. He is a good, honest, trustworthy, caring person and a patriotic Iranian.
I find what he says very interesting and try to put my head around what he says.

I have been trying to reconcile how it is possible that Iran is filled with so many wonderful people while
Iran has such a poor reputation in the world because of the actions of its government and Darius’
explanations help me with this.

Why Does Everyone Blink their Headlights at Us?

Today we figure out why everyone keeps blinking their lights at us. Every day dozens, perhaps even a
hundred people flash their lights at us or signal with their hands out of the window that our lights are
one. Even pedestrians tell us through the window. They are concerned that our lights are on. Our car has
“day running lights”, which means the headlights are always on, on a slightly dimmer brightness than
when you turn your lights on. This is intended to be a safety feature and is even required by law in many

But the majority of Iranians feel we are wasting our lights or energy. It’s really funny how different
things bother different people. Darius doesn’t wear a seatbelt, motorcycles, mopeds and bikes don’t use
helmets, roundabouts have no right of way, and neither do intersections! Cars and trucks don’t use lights
at dusk, some not even at night. Some people use them but turn them off when you come near. Almost
nobody uses blinkers. But everyone is concerned that my lights are on! Everyone has their pet peeve and
for Iranians it is having your lights on during the day.

Takht-e Soleyman

At about 4:45 we get to Takht-e Soleyman. It’s an old castle and holy place for Zoroastrians.
Zoroastrianism is the first monotheistic religion. They are dualists – the world is a struggle between
good and bad. They believed there are 4 elements that should be revered: earth, air, water, fire. At
Takht-e Soleyman there is a deep well that makes a really cool crater lake, a natural gas vent that can
sustain a flame, and lots of earth and air.

Then we visit Zendan-e Soleiman, a 97m conical peak with a dizzying void in the middle, very close to
Takht-e Soleyman. Zendan-e Soleiman means Solomon’s prison. We hike to the rim and peer inside.
Wow! On the way down we are invited to tea by the Kurdish caretaker. He has picked some herbal
flowers and makes tea with it. He is an adorable, handsome Kurd with smooth, dark, healthy skin and
blue eyes. He lives in a village about 5 km away that he walks from and to each day. He is really kind.
He lived in Tehran for a year but decided to come back to his village.

After visiting Zendan-e Soleiman and having tea we head for our hotel in Takab. We check in about 10
p.m., park in the underground garage (super tight and steep drive – I need 4WD to get out of the cement
drive the next day), have some soup, salad and yogurt for dinner.

Oljeitu Mausoleum in Soltanieh

On June 17th we are on the road at 7:20 a.m., then stop later in the morning to eat the take-away
breakfast our hotel prepared for us the night before. The first half of today’s 400 km drive is on a
beautiful winding road through the mountains and the last half is on a good expressway where we can go
120 km/h. During the day we stop in Soltanieh to see the Oljeitu Mausoleum, the world’s tallest brick
dome. The dome is a beautiful blue dome on a tan structure that used to have blue tile on the outside and
still has lots of decorations on the inside. The Mausoleum’s sponsor was Mongol Sultan Oljeitu
Khodabandeh, who changed religions several times. While he was a Shiite he and his favorite concubine
wanted to move the remains of Iman Ali from Najaf (in present day Iraq) to here to make it the 2nd
holiest Shiite site (after Mecca). Khodabandeh didn’t succeed and was eventually buried here himself.
This is our wonderful guide Darius, standing in from of the mausoleum.

Stani and Darius find a way to get around our Tour Agency

At this point Darius is able to reach IranianVisa (our tour agency) on his cell phone and is informed that
since we are behind schedule (because they didn’t get Darius on a train to the border on time) and they
can’t change our reservations in Esfahan (I think they would have to pay something to change the
reservation), they have cut our hiking trip in the Alamut Valley. I’m pretty upset by this because this
hike is one of the few things that I really wanted to do in Iran and since January I’ve been telling
IranianVisa that I really want to spend 2-3 days here. After all the driving we have been doing I want to
use my legs again. When I call IranianVisa they conveniently won’t pick up the phone and then won’t
return my messages.

But Darius and I find a way around these bozos. We agree that I’ll pay the hotel we are staying at in
Qazvin for an extra night out of pocket and we simply won’t show up at our next hotel (which I paid
IranianVisa for). This will give us a full day to hike the Alamut Valley and see the Castles of the
Assassins. Then we’ll drive all the way to Esfahan the next day. Darius will cover for us with the police
if there are any questions about why we aren’t saying where IranianVisa has us staying. As Americans
we need to stick to our pre-approved itinerary and I’m told the police check on this. But in reality we are
more closely sticking to your original government-approved itinerary, just not the latest modification
from IranianVisa. Thank you Darius! We are going to hike in the beautiful Alamut Valley! I can get
back to enjoying our trip.

Shopping for a headscarf, a Manateau, Bread and more Hospitality

After seeing Oljeitu Mausoleum in Soltanieh and fixing our itinerary we drive to Qazvin and check into
our hotel there. We visit a camping store and buy a map of Alamut Valley. Darius would like to smoke a
water pipe and we are happy to explore the city on our own a bit so we split up for a few hours. In a
candy store Kirstin gets an ice cream and I get an Iranian sweet. The store owner asks where we are
from and when we tell him United States he exclaims “America!” and then greets us warmly and gives
us a special discount for being Americans.

Kirstin needs a proper headscarf and manateau in Iran (she has improvised until now) so we find some
clothing stores and go shopping. The store owners don’t speak English and we don’t speak Farsi so it’s
an interesting experience. Image buying a type of clothing you’ve never worn before and you can’t
speak to the sales people. But the sales people are very nice, in one of the shops the owner finds another
shop owner that speaks some English, and some of the other women customers are also very helpful. In
the end Kirstin is able to find a nice headscarf and manateau.

Many people might not know what a manateau is. It’s sort of shirt or blouse that is long enough to cover
the behind of the wearer. Contrary to what you may think, it can actually be quite stylish. The clothes
that women wear in public in Iran basically falls into one of two categories. The more conservative
outfit is a chador, which translated literally means “tent”. It is a black sheet that is worn over the head
and body. Under this the woman wears pants and a blouse. It covers everything except the feet and face.
Wearing a chador is considered form of modesty by many women, while others, including many
westerners see it as oppressive. The other type of outfit is a headscarf and manateau, which as I said, can
be very stylish. To me, women wearing manateaus in the cities look as stylish as women’s fashion in
Europe. Below are photos of a woman wearing a chador and Kirstin wearing a headscarf and manateau.

Now that Kirstin has something to wear we go looking for food. We find some groceries but our best
find is Sangiak bread, which is traditionally baked on a bed of stones. In our bread shop there is a large
oven, similar to a pizza oven with a large rotating plate (~2.5m) with dimples on it. The woman next to
me helps us figure things out. You wait in line, tell them how many breads you want (they cost $0.30
each for a thick 3’ by 1’ piece), you wait for it to cool, then put it in a bag or walk off with it. Back at
our hotel we make a stop in the hotel parking garage. The parking attendant speaks no English but
clenches his hands together and says America-Iran, meaning we are friends. Even the parking guy is so
kind and welcoming to us. What would the average person on the street in the US say about Iranians?
The hospitality here is incredible. More than in any other country I’ve visited, Iranians separate how
they feel about the actions of foreign governments with citizens of that country.

Alamut Valley and the Castles of the Assassins (June 18) – Posted by Stani on Saturday, August 7,

Hiking in the Alamut Valley was one of the things that I most wanted to do in Iran. On our trip we are
doing so much driving and I was really looking forward to getting away from the car and using my legs
a bit. Also, since the Iranian government only approves Americans to stay in hotels in cities in Iran, this
means we will be seeing mostly cultural things and being in nature for a day will be a nice change.

The Alamut Valley is in the Alborz Mountains in the north of Iran. This Alborz contain Iran’s highest
peak, Mt. Damavand (5671m), and they extend right to the Caspian Sea. Aside from being very
beautiful, the Alamut Valley also contains the Castles of the Assassins, a legendary group of 12th
century castles that sheltered the followers of Hasan-e Sabbah, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect of

We start our day early for the three hour drive from our hotel in Qazvin to Garamund in the Alamut
Valley. The road is a race car driver’s dream. I think the entire route doesn’t have a straight section on it.
It is filled mountain hairpins, fast sweepers, steep sections up and down and a few road hazards like
uneven pavement sections or potholes. There are only a few other cars on the road and there are
effectively no speed limits – the police stay away from here and the road really doesn’t allow you to go
much over 95 km/h anyway. And all around is incredibly beautiful scenery. But if you mis-judge a turn
you are dead because there are no guardrails to protect you from going right off the edge. Driver’s skill,
the car’s handling and brakes are really, really tested here but what fun this is!

At Garmarud the road becomes a 4WD track. It’s also a lot of fun to drive but a totally different
experience! We climb up to 10,000 feet, mostly in first gear and in 4WD. Near Salambar Pass we park
the car and start our hike past Pichebon Caravanserai (used by traders through the ages), over the pass,
and down towards the Caspian Sea. There are glaciated 4000m+ peaks to our south, the earth has all
kinds of interesting minerals and stones, the temperature is perfect with a few clouds, a nice breeze and
dry air and we have a wonderful time. There are little yellow flowers and small pink bushes around us.
We stop for a picnic lunch, then return to the car for the drive back. Today is the first day that the flu I
got in Turkey is completely gone. I think I needed the fresh air and to get my blood flowing again.

We return to Garmarud at the bottom of the 4WD track, drive into a different valley to see Alamut
Castle, which is a ruin on top of a peak (I can see how this place was impenetrable), then drive the race
car driver’s road back to Qazvin. Now there are more cars but everyone is flying. People here really
know how to drive! I have no idea how they can get these little old cars with no power up these roads as
fast as they do. People are picnicking by the road, playing music, and enjoying the wonderful weather
and scenery. One woman is sitting in the rear side window of a car as the car flies up and down the
mountain roads. Darius plays us some of his favorite tunes on his phone. Everyone is enjoying life.

When we arrive back in Qazvin I’m exhausted but Darius who never runs out of energy (we nickname
him Energizer Bunny) talks us into going out to a tea house. The place he takes us to is so cool! High
ceiling, carpets all over, cool decorations. We sit Indian style on one of the platforms with pillows
behind us and order some chicken kebab and tea. At 10:00 the place starts to really fill up. Iranians
know how to have a good time.

I’m so happy that we could hike the Alamut Valley. We are truly blessed to be able to experience all this
and to have Darius as our guide.

Esfahan (June 19-21) – Posted by Stani on Wednesday, August 11, 2010
After a long drive from Qazvin and Alamut Valley on June 19th we reach Hotel Julfa in the famous city
of Esfahan. Esfahan is the second of three things that I really looked forward to seeing in Iran.

When we arrive Darius jumps out of the car to tell the hotel we are there and to ask where we should
park. I’m directed to put the car on the marble floor right in front of the hotel’s main entrance, I presume
for us to unload our things. But no, we are once again the honored guests and our car should stay there.
Our Lonely Planet guidebook expresses it very well with “They (Iranians) are generally warm and
welcoming to a degree that can be, and often is, embarrassing to Westerners.” Darius mentions to the
hotel that our guide book says the rooms here are small so the hotel we gives us a gigantic room with a
queen bed, 2 twin beds, a table with 4 chairs, a refrigerator, a closet and a bathroom so big that if there
were more shower heads a whole swim team could shower in it at once.

The next morning we walk into the city. We walk over Si-o-she Bridge, a beautiful bridge with 33
arches, look into a madrasa (a Muslim seminary) and walk through Honar Bazaar. Then we visit
Chehelsotoon Museum, which was a reception hall and pleasure pavilion built around 1647 and is
completely covered in frescoes on the inside. The photo below shows the front entrance of

Then we walk to Imam Square (Naqsh-e Johan Square), the main square of Esfahan. It is a magnificent
square, sometimes described as “half of the world” because of all the majestic buildings on it: Sheik
Lotfollah Mosque, Imam Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace, two bazaars and a number of shops around its
perimeter. The photo below shows one corner of the square including Imam Mosque.

On the square we start with Ali Qapu Palace, the 16th century residence of Shah Abbas, where we meet
two Iranian sisters whose father was a general for the Shah of Iran before the Islamic Revolution of
1979. The older sister was already married and stayed in Iran. The younger one fled to the United States
and lives in Miami. Now the younger sister is visiting her sibling and they are touring Esfahan like we
are. Darius, who supports the current system in Iran and the younger sister who thinks the current
system has ruined Iran have a very lively discussion. The younger sister isn’t afraid to speak her mind
and it’s really great to watch this debate. A small example is the younger sister says women are
oppressed by the dress code in Iran while Darius argues that the dress code is for the benefit of women
so men don’t bother them. But to this the sister counters, “well men here should learn to control
themselves.” The exchange continues on a variety of topics regarding modern Iranian culture, society
and politics.

We walk across the square to Sheik Lotfollah Mosque, whose entrance and prayer hall are shown in the
photos below. The mosque was completed in 1619 and was used by the women of the Shah’s harem. It
is written and I agree that it is arguably the most fabulous mosque in Iran. It is unusual because it has
neither a minaret nor a courtyard because it was not intended for public use. The entrance is beautiful,
the hallway to the prayer room is beautiful, and the inside is absolutely stunning. This mosque is one of
the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen anywhere. It makes extensive use of cream colors, in
addition to the signature blue and turquoise colors typical of Esfahan. The portal window inside is

After seeing Sheik Lotfollah Mosque, we have tea with Darius and the two Iranian sisters in Azadegan
Teahouse (photo below). It is a really cool place that is overflowing with character. All kinds of lamps,
paintings and stuff hang from the ceiling. Kirstin and I share a portion of lentil/sheep stew with bread
and a type of relish. Darius enjoys a water pipe. It’s great to talk to the two Iranian women about Iran
and its relationship with the US and the West.

After enjoying lunch at the teahouse we walk back to Imam Square and meander through two bazaars.
This is where I notice the copper lacquerware vases, bowls, cups, etc., that Esfahan is famous for. The
pieces are painted white, blue and turquoise, which makes them looks like porcelain. Then we head back
to our hotel, where Kirstin rests (she hadn’t been feeling well), does some e-mail and visits an Armenian
salon. Darius and I go for a walk to one of the famous bridges in Esfahan and enjoy some spaghetti ice
cream (also famous here) and have a really great talk about why Iran doesn’t have better relations with
so many countries. Darius’ main point is that Iran should be treated with more respect by the US and
other countries. We also talk about what I do with the Fulbright Association and how important I think
international exchange is. Darius says that God sees what I do and that I’m a good person. We also talk
about Darius wanting to visit the US some day. I can’t tell him anything about getting a visa but I tell
him about car rental, hotels, camping, things to see and how he may find things. It’s fun thinking about
my impressions of Iran but in reverse. I hope he and his family can visit the US some day and it would
be really cool to see him there. Back at the hotel we meet up with Kirstin and have a nice dinner in a
traditional Iranian restaurant next to our hotel.

The next day we visit the (old) Jameh Mosque. It is an incredible mosque complex that has been built
over such a long time that it is like a museum of Islamic architecture, starting in the 11th century and
spanning 800 years. We tour the mosque and Darius explains some of the main beliefs and practices of
Islam. The courtyard of the Jameh Mosque is shown below.

Then we go back to Imam Square to see the Imam Mosque. This is a huge, working mosque that our
Lonely Plant guidebook calls one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. It has a very impressive
entrance that is aligned with the square, then you turn a corner to the courtyard with four Iwans (like a
gate or altar). Absolutely everything is covered with floral artwork (Islam forbids images of people or of
things that make us think of this world). The size of this mosque and the amount of artwork in it is
overwhelming. The photo below shows one part of the mosque. After visiting the mosque we do a little
shopping, exchange money, check out of our hotel and make the long drive to Shiraz…

Shiraz and Persepolis (June 21-23) – Posted by Stani on Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Persepolis is an archeological ruin of an ancient city just outside of Shiraz in the southwest of Iran and is
the last of three things that I was really looking forward to seeing in Iran.

Since we left Esfahan rather late in the day on June 21st our 500 km drive to Shiraz brings us into the
city just as it is getting dark and rush hour is at its worst. Our hotel is also on the opposite side of the city
from where we arrive so I have to deal with another crazy evening in traffic. Finally we find our hotel,
Niayesh Boutique Hotel, a traditional Iranian home converted into a hotel. The home/hotel is a series of
rooms centered about a beautiful courtyard (see photo below). Our room has tons of character, the hotel
management is super nice, and they even show me a good place to park our car and then drive us back to
the hotel in a motorcycle-powered, 3-wheeled vehicle that is half Indian rickshaw, half Pope-mobile. We
enjoy a nice dinner in the courtyard.

After a good night’s rest we drive back out of Shiraz to Persepolis. Persepolis came to power around 500
BC and embodies the success and power of the Achaemenid Empire, a great empire that preceded the
Greek and Roman Empires. The Achaemenids ruled a vast multicultural empire. Darius tells us all about
this Persian Empire, including that this was the first city where scholars have proof that people bought
insurance for things.

The entrance to Persepolis gives the visitor an idea of how magnificent this ancient city must have been.

Once inside the city there are many different things to see but one of the most impressive to me was the
wall of bas-reliefs showing people from 23 nations bringing gifts typical of their homelands to the
Acheamenid King. Even after 2500 years the bas-reliefs are still incredibly clear and illustrative.

The sun is very intense but we deal with it ok and have some refreshments in a little café next to the
ruins where I enjoy a blackberry juice with real blackberry bits in it. Then we visit the tomb of
Artaxerxes II, one of the Acheaminid kings, which overlooks the city. From the front of the tomb you
can get a feel of how extensive Persepolis is.

We have lunch in an outdoor restaurant a few km away with a pond and fountains, then continue to the
tombs of Xerxes, Darius I, Artaxerxes I and Darius II at Naqsh-e Rostam, all of which were Acheaminid
kings. These are huge tombs cut into the rock cliffs. They were completely covered in dirt that slowly
blew here until they were excavated earlier in this century.

Also cut into the rock are stone reliefs depicting various military victories of the Acheaminids. Later,
after Darius notices my Martian Marathon t-shirt, I learn that the Achaemenids (Persians) and Greeks
fought a battle at Marathon and when the Persians lost, legend has it that a Greek soldier ran to Athens
(26.2 miles) to proclaim that the battle was won, then passed out and died. These are the kings whose
defeat “created” the marathon.

More detailed history for history buffs and marathon runners (mostly taken from Lonely Planet): The
Greeks assisted the cities of Iona in their attempt to overthrow Persian rule. In response the Achaemenid
king Darius I swore revenge on Greece. In 490 BC he sent a force to attack Greece. There was a standoff
and then stalemate at Marathon. For reasons that are not completely clear the Greeks attacked and with
their heavier arms defeated the Persians, who retreated to Asia. Darius began raising a huge new army
but when the Egyptians (who were under Persian rule) revolted it postponed his plans. After Darius died
Xerxes I restarted preparations and attacked in 480 BC. The first battle at marathon was a watershed in
the Greco-Persian wars, showing that the Persians could be defeated. Historians see the Battle of
Marathon as a pivotal moment in European history.

After seeing the tombs we drive back to Shiraz and visit a huge Bazaar with lots of people, tons and tons
of shops packed with goods, some of which are really cool. I wish we had bazaars like this at home for
Christmas shopping! We buy some rose water and Bidmeshk (Egyptian willow) extract drink. It is really

After the bazaar we walk to a restaurant that has a live four-member Iranian band (singer, violin,
dulcimer, drum). The food is great (I have eggplant/yogurt dip with bread, salad, Mahi kabab, dessert of
figs and sweet paste) and it is so cool hearing and seeing the band. What a great night. Darius has really
organized a great day for us.

The next day, on June 23rd we visit the Sa’di shrine in Shiraz. Sa’di is one of Iran’s most beloved poets.
He died in 1291 and wrote a great deal about roses and love. Then it is back on the road to drive to

Final Days in Iran (June 23-27) – Posted by Stani on Thursday, August 12, 2010
Shiraz and Persepolis mark the southernmost point of our trip at 29 degrees north of the equator (Dunnet
Head Scotland was our northernmost point at 58 degrees north). Now it’s time to start heading north
again towards Turkmenistan. So on June 23rd we drive northeast towards Yazd and see a couple of nice
things along the way. One of them is a beautiful cypress tree that is 4000-5000 years old. The tree is
gorgeous, symmetric and surprisingly green and full of fruit.

In Yazd we check into Fahadan Great Hotel and it really is a great hotel. It is the grandest hotel of our
trip so far (this and Hotel Venus in Pamukkale, Turkey are probably the nicest). Like our hotel in Shiraz,
Hotel Fahadan is built in the model of a traditional Iranian home with a courtyard in the middle. This
time, however, our room and bathroom are grand in the style of a real luxury hotel. The courtyard is
beautiful and our room is filled with artifacts and artwork. The natural gas powered air conditioning also
works great.

We are exhausted after a long day but Darius orders us drinks, which he calls the hotel’s welcome
drinks. The hotel brings us drinks and an American flag in a little flag holder. Here we are in Iran, sitting
on a beautiful Persian carpet in our hotel’s courtyard, sipping delicious ice cold extract drinks with an
American flag in front of us. It is such a kind and welcoming gesture, but a bit much for me so I ask if
the hotel also has an Iranian flag. They do so now I’m happy to sit in the courtyard with Kirstin and
Darius with our two flags. I think this is the first time I’ve seen these two flags displayed next to each
other. Wouldn’t it be nice if governments could act more like this?

The next day (June 24th) starts with more hospitality. After a nice breakfast we walk outside to our car
and all three of us gasp and are bewildered when it appears our car isn’t there. Has it been stolen? After
a few seconds we realize the hotel staff have wrapped our car with a cloth car cover! All the other cars
don’t have covers on them but we are the honored guests and once again get super special treatment.
Here’s Kirstin in front of our wrapped-up car.

Yazd is a city that has a large minority of Zoroastrians. After unwrapping our car we drive to the
Zoroastrian Towers of Silence (Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun). Darius tells us about Zoroastrians: It is the
first monotheistic religion and Zoroastrians believe in one main god with about 10 helper gods and they
see life as a struggle between good and evil. They believe earth, air, water and fire are four sacred
elements that must be revered and always kept clean. Darius says that because of this their society was
probably the cleanest there was. Zoroastrians believe that dead bodies contaminate the earth so they used
to lay them on stones inside of these towers and the vultures would pick the bones clean. Today
Zoroastrians are buried in concrete coffins so their bodies do not contaminate the earth. We hike up the
towers and enjoy great views of the Zoroastrian funeral homes next to the towers, the modern
Zoroastrian cemetery, and the city of Yazd. After coming down from the towers we visit several of the
funeral homes and the modern cemetery. Darius tells us that Zoroastrians are buried facing up, looking
to heaven. Muslims are buried on their side with their eyes facing Mecca. The photo below is taken from
inside one of the funeral homes looking up at one of the towers.

We eat lunch in a traditional restaurant in an old bathhouse and then visit a Zoroastrian temple and a
traditional wind catcher (a device that funnels cool wind into a home to act as a natural and quite
effective air conditioner). We decide to go back to the hotel a bit earlier today to catch up on e-mail,
laundry, grocery shopping, write a birthday card and rest a bit. Reluctantly, Darius agrees. I’m sure he
would have shown us 10 more things. When we buy some fresh and delicious bread in a tiny bakery
around the corner from our hotel the bakers refuses to take any money, even after I offer money three
times to one baker and then three times to another (more hospitality). So I bring the bakers some
Starburst candy that we still have from home, and they accept this.

After a nice dinner in our room I wash our car with a guy from the hotel with the chamois cloth that the
Bradburys gave me in England. This thing is great! Then I join Darius in the hotel courtyard, where he is
smoking a lemon water pipe. Darius gives us 3 CD’s that he had copied from the cool café in Hotel Julfa
in Esfahan, 2 CD’s from Hotel Fahadan in Yazd, a handkerchief from Hotel Fahadan and a few postcard
pictures of the hotel. He and the hotel are so nice. We go to bed at 10:00, which is the earliest we have in
a while, but it’s good because tomorrow we need to drive 920 km through the desert from Yazd to
Mashad, which I estimate will take us 15 hours.

On June 25th we cover the most distance in a day during our time in Iran – 570 miles or 920 km. Darius
isn’t feeling well (he thinks he ate something bad) but feels better as the day goes on. The road goes
through a huge desert and the temperature reaches 105F. I drive for 11 hours, then Kirstin takes over for
2 ½ and then I finish the drive into Mashad. We get to our hotel just before 8:00 while it is still light out
and traffic isn’t so bad. This is our last city in Iran. I’m really happy that we have made it through the
traffic of all of the cities we visited without any accidents. I think we are going to make it! Not that I
thought we wouldn’t but after what you see on the news and what so many people were telling us, it is a
relief. We have dinner and go to sleep.

On the morning of June 26th we visit the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad, which is the most important
Shiite Shrine in Iran. Imam Reza was one of the 11 Imams of Shiite Islam and is entombed here. The
Shrine is one of the marvels of the Islamic World and Lonely Plant writes that this complex will most
likely be seen as the defining architectural achievement of the Islamic Revolution.

Sunnis and Shiites disagree on who the successor of Mohammed is. Shiite Muslims believe there have
been 11 Imams (leaders or saints) since Mohammed. The 12th one is the final one. He disappeared into a
cave under a Mosque in Samara in 874 AD and will one day return with Jesus at his side at the end of
the world.

As we approach the shrine it becomes clear what a big deal this place is. People from all walks of life
are coming to the shrine to pray. Below is a photo of a clergy man just outside the gates of the shrine.

The shrine of Imam Reza is a huge complex, basically a small city that is filled with incredibly detailed
artwork and architecture and is packed with pilgrims. Non-Muslims are not allowed in the tomb area but
are allowed to visit the rest of the complex, provided they dress and act properly. For Kirstin this means
putting on a chador, which can be checked out just outside the shrine. She doesn’t like the way it makes
her feel, and I agree that unlike a headscarf and manateau, a chador is really very different from what
women wear outside of Iran.

There is no way to capture the look or atmosphere of the shrine but the photo below is one part of one of
many, many squares surrounded by architecture covered in millions or I think billions of small tiles.

After visiting the shrine we take a long walk to a “stone park” where we sit by some water, then climb
the rock hill with beautiful views of Mashad and a lovely breeze at the top (photo below).

Then we take a long taxi ride to a pizza restaurant and back to our hotel. Kirstin and I go to an internet
café while Darius buys his train ticket to get back home to Tehran after we will leave him at the border

The next day (June 27) we begin our drive to the border really early because Darius’ train from Mashad
to Tehran leaves at 1:00 and he’ll need to take a taxi to the train station in Mashad to catch it. The drive
out of Mashad goes smoothly and the road to the border is in excellent shape and we make great time.
Below is a photo of the scenery on the drive.

As we approach the border I notice that the border in my GPS is a bit off. The map says we are in
Turkmenistan but we have not reached the Iranian border point yet so we are certainly still in Iran. So
don’t trust your GPS maps if you are near a sensitive border!

We arrive at the border just before they open at 8:00 a.m. Darius helps us with the border formalities on
the Iranian side and then gives me the t-shirt that he bought in Esfahan (it has a Zoroastrian symbol on it
and says “Persian”) and says since he has been wearing it during the trip it should remind us of him. I
promise to send him one of my shirts when I get home. Kirstin and I give him a Michigan baseball cap
and thank him for being such a wonderful guide. It is sad to see Darius go. We have had a wonderful
time in Iran and a big part of that was Darius. So thank you Darius!

With Darius gone the gate is opened and we drive through but the Iranian soldier at the border gate tells
us to go back. It turns out we didn’t get an exit stamp. The old man that opened the gate gets chewed out
for letting us through. After a little waiting we get our stamp. Phew! At 9:30 we cross the border and
enter Turkmenistan.

Iran has been a highlight of our big trip and an incredible experience. We will never forget our time
here! We experienced fear in coming here, noticed censorship of the New York Times, Skype, Facebook
and our blog while in Iran, and were told a million times that our lights are on; but we were rewarded
with amazing Persian history, Islamic architecture, and a hospitality like nowhere else. The Iranians we
met were able to separate political differences from person-to-person kindness better than any other
people I’ve ever met. Most Iranians are deeply religious and we admired many of the things that Islam
teaches. We survived the crazy traffic in the cities and Kirstin looked great in her headscarf and
manateau. We had a wonderful time and a terrific guide, and we learned some things about Persian
identity and ultimately about ourselves.

Turkmenistan Border and Ashgabat (June 27-30) – Posted by Stani on Tuesday, August 17, 2010
We made it through Iran! It was a great adventure and now for the next adventure: Turkmenistan! While
everyone has heard of Iran and has their preconceptions, opinions and offered their advice to us, few
people I know have even heard of Turkmenistan.

The contrast between Iran and Turkmenistan couldn’t be stronger. It is as sharp as the difference
between how much news coverage these two countries receive. I’ve found that most borders are pretty
soft, where although there is a well defined border, the cultures of the two countries blend gradually
across the border. But this is a “hard” border.

Stepping from Iran into Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is a shock. Iranian cities are filled with
people, packed with tiny shops, have traffic jams and crazy driving, religion plays a huge role in
people’s lives, cities grow organically and there doesn’t seem to be a much central planning. Ashgabat
feels empty, is centrally planned and very controlled with countless police and road-side check-points,
has gleaming white marble buildings with huge spaces between them, has wide straight freshly paved
boulevards with almost nobody driving on them (and when they do they stay in their lanes!), and women
wear long, beautiful, colorful dresses and don’t cover their hair. Sadly, much of Ashgabat is built for
show, to impress. Kind of like Las Vegas done in white marble. Iran impresses with 3000 years of
history and the mish-mash of what this has left; Ashgabat is a capital that is being built from the ground

Turkmenistan is a nation of mountains and desert, lies on the east side of the Caspian Sea, has a history
of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, was part of the Soviet Union until it dissolved in 1991 when
Turkmenistan became an independent country. People are predominantly Sunni Muslim, but religion
plays a much, much smaller role in most peoples’ lives than it does in Iran.

It takes us two and a half hours to cross the Turkmen side of the border. Not because there are many
people, but because of the tangle of red tape and no concept of efficiency. Eventually, after a great
amount of waiting, confusion, yelling by one of the officials (louder doesn’t help me understand!), more
confusion, more waiting, help from Angela (from our inviting organization), more confusion, waiting
and running back and forth, we get our visas, entry travel passes (from Angela) car liability insurance,
car entry permit and car obligation, each with its proper stamps. The main delay is that we want to drive
to Ashgabat and Darvaza, then turn around and backtrack to Ashgabat before driving to Turkmenbashi
and north to Kazakhstan. Our car entry permit, which must list the places we will visit, only has one line
and it and does not allow for a change in direction. So in the end we get an car entry permit only to go to
Ashgabat and will have to file an car entry permit amendment in Ashgabat (where the form has tons of
lines for visiting multiple places).

From the border it is a short drive to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital. We check into Hotel Aziya,
which is a nice place with a huge foyer and large, well equipped rooms. Strangely there are only 20
rooms in this huge building. We organize our things, eat in the Chinese restaurant downstairs in the
hotel and I catch up on my journal.

The next day, on June 28th our Turkmenistan adventure begins. In the morning a driver from our
inviting organization takes us into town and helps us fill out a car entry permit amendment so that we
can see Darvaza, change direction and exit into Kazakhstan. Back at the hotel we give him our entry
travel passes and passports and he takes them away for the proper stamps. Antonina from Stantours (our
tourist agency – they were great) gives us a lift to Independence Park. Then we spend the rest of the day
exploring the city. We are free to see Ashgabat on our own but need to travel with a guide after today
when we leave the capital.

In the park we see the Turkmen Independence Monument surrounded by some very impressive Turkmen
statues. The photo below shows some of these facing the National Museum.

There is a triple wedding celebration and photo session taking place as we walk past the museum.

From the monument we walk along at least a kilometer of fountains (see photo below). Ashgabat is in
the Karakum desert and water for the fountains, irrigation, etc., must be brought in from the Aral Sea,
which has shrunk dramatically and is causing massive environmental damage. The temperature is well
over 100F and the sun is blazing so we stop and drink a liter and a half of lemon drink at a shopping
mall with a huge water cascade on the outside. On our way back to the hotel, along Turkmenbashi street
there is a row of huge marble buildings (almost skyscrapers) that appear to be totally empty. We later
learn that each building is full of apartments for one government agency. But the apartments are
expensive so few employees choose to live there. Since the apartments are only for employees of that
agency the building are mostly empty.

After rehydrating at the hotel we drive to Yimpash shopping plaza (photo below). Turkmenistan is full
of surprises and this is one of them. This place is awesome! The first floor is groceries, the second floor
is clothes, and the third floor is restaurants, internet computers, bowling, pool, ping-pong, an arcade and
a kid’s gym. We buy a ton to drink, lots of food, and a memory stick. This place is as probably the best
grocery story we’ve seen on our trip and the first really good store since Germany! We feel like we’ve
arrived in an oasis! We drive back to the hotel and drink, drink, drink, then rest a little and have a
grocery food dinner in our room.

After dinner we drive downtown to see the main sights of Ashgabat. On the way there I realize that I
don’t have my international driver’s license, Turkmenistan insurance, car entry permit, entry travel pass
and obligation. I consider going back to the hotel but we are already downtown so we just park and
sightsee first (more on this later).

We see the Arch of Neutrality topped with a 12 meter polished-gold statue of President Niyazov, the
first president of independent Turkmenistan, which revolves so the former president always faces the
sun. Photo of the Arch and Niyazov is shown below.

Next to the arch is a touching earthquake memorial to the victims of the 1948 earthquake (9 on the
Richter scale) that killed over 110,000 residents of Ashgabat (2/3 of the population) and a total of
160,000 people in the province of Ashgabat. There is a nice memorial flame and plaque, but above these
stands a huge statue of a bull head-butting the earth with destruction and bodies on its top half (photo
below). On the top of world sits a Turkman woman (Niyazov’s mother who died in the earthquake)
holding up a golden child (Niyazov) to the sky, facing the Arch of Neutrality. Humility was not one of
Niyazov’s characteristics. Next to the memorial is a Soviet WWII Memorial and further down the
pedestrian park is Ashgabat State University.

It is getting dark and there are police everywhere (that we hear like to check one’s papers and look for
any reason to issue a fine) so I suggest we take a taxi to the hotel to pick up our documents before
driving our car. After the taxi driver unsuccessfully tries to swindle us into paying double the rate, we
are back at our car.

We get into our car and start to head for the hotel but notice that the police on every corner have closed
all the roads in our direction. I’ve never seen so many traffic police! At one point I turn left on a street
with no one-way signs and no police but 20 m later a police signals me to pull over. I give the young
policeman my driver’s license, international driver’s license and my passport. He speaks no English or
Russian (I think) because he can’t read my license or Russian page on my international driver’s license.
He signals he must write me a citation for going the wrong way on the street I pulled onto and calls
someone on his radio, presumably to translate my information. He is very nice and offers us water. 20
minutes go by and nobody shows up to help him. He gets more and more antsy and we ask him if we
can go to our hotel. I give him the name of our hotel and repeatedly ask how we can get to
Turkmenbashi Street. We are obviously just trying to get home. After another 5 minutes he thankfully
lets us go. Phew! I very carefully continue to drive and thankfully find a bigger street with traffic that I
can follow past several dozen police check points. After going in the opposite direction of our hotel for a
while I can finally turn south and we make it home to our hotel. The next day Maksat (our guide) tells us
that maybe the president (Mr. Berdymukhamedov) may have been passing through and this is why all
the streets were closed. Happy to be in our hotel we have dinner, watch some Russian MTV videos and
go to sleep.

The next day we meet Maksat (our guide) and head north for the Darvaza gas crater but I’m going to
jump ahead to June 30th when we return from Darvaza and spend a few hours in Ashgabat again. We
buy lunch and groceries at the really cool Russian market, then see the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque on
our way out of town (photo below). The mosque has 4 huge minarets, a 61m dome, gleams with white
marble and has room for 10,000 worshipers but oddly there is no parking for visitors so Maksat directs
us to park our car right on the highway in front of the mosque. We are not allowed to park in the 400 car
parking garage but are allowed to park on the highway – different logic than what I’m used to. We
admire the mosque but are stunned (especially after spending 2 weeks in Iran and seeing how much
religion is a part of peoples’ lives) that there are absolutely no worshipers or visitors in or around the
mosque. The only people there are some soldiers guarding the mosque, a man that lets us in and three
women vacuuming the carpets. It’s sad that this place was apparently built just for show and that people
don’t come here. Next to the mosque is President Niyazov’s mausoleum but other than some soldiers
guarding it nobody is here either. We walk back to our car and continue our drive out of the city.

Darvaza Gas Crater (June 29-30) – Posted by Stani on Tuesday, August 17, 2010
On June 29th, after sleeping in a bit, washing cloths and visiting Yimpash shopping mall again to pick
up groceries, having lunch and using the internet (although many things including our blog are blocked),
we meet our guide Maksat at our hotel. Maksat is a nice guy, 27 years old, speaks good English and has
been working as a guide for a few years since completing his military service. It’s great that he doesn’t
have too much stuff, but he does have these huge BBQ skewers and talks about buying a bunch of meat
to grill in the desert. This worries us a bit for our nice clean car and we are a little suspect about what
kind of meat he plans for all of us to eat. So we tell him we really don’t eat much meat and don’t have
anywhere to put it in the car.

We buy gas for our car, which only costs $0.22/liter (but foreigners need to pay a $0.06/ km road tax
when entering the country so the total cost comes to something like $2.50/gallon), then head north into
the Karakum desert towards the Darvaza gas crater. The crater is 260 km north of Ashgabat on a
reasonably good road, then 7 km on a compacted sand road over some dunes. The temperature reaches
108F in mid-afternoon and then gradually cools. About half way there we stop at a small village called
Jerbent for tea (photo below) and a smoke for Maksat. Here Maksat also buys some mutton for himself
and picks up a greasy pan and an old water kettle that he likes to boil water in over a fire for a better tea
taste. We carefully double wrap his meat, pan and kettle in plastic bags and get back on the road.

We see our first camels along the way (photo below) and are fascinated by them. They are really
interesting creatures, and it is really cool to see them walk. Later on our trip we will see many more in
Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia, some with one hump, some with two. When we reach the
sand road I drop the tire pressure from 35 psi to 20 in the front tires and 15 in the rear tires for better
float over the sand.

We are amazed by the Darvaza gas crater. It’s a huge crater with flames coming out of all the crack and
crevices. You can smell the gas, you can feel the radiation, and you can see the plumes of hot gas
convect out of it (photo below).

So what is this crater in the middle of the desert and why is it on fire? The gas crater is the result of
Soviet natural gas exploration in the 1950’s (some sources say the 1970’s). A natural gas rig was
installed here but after drilling commenced the earth gave way, causing the rig to fall into the crater that
was formed. Natural gas was rushing out of the crater and couldn’t be easily stopped so the workers set
the escaping gases ablaze to burn up most of the gas, thinking the well would burn itself out in a few
days. Well, it is still burning.

We walk around the crater, taking a bunch of pictures, then move the car to our camping spot about
100m from the crater. We set up camp and have dinner. The temperature is pleasant now with a light
breeze. Maksat asks us for a table, a spoon to mix his mutton, a knife to cut an onion and tomato with,
and a cup for his vodka. We don’t have a table but give him a piece of cardboard to sit on, Kirstin gives
him her spoon for him to mix his mutton, and I offer him my plastic Marlboro cup but he wants
something smaller so he uses Kirstin’s cup. I don’t want to give him my knife (maybe I’m a bit strange
but I like to keep my pocket knife clean and sharp) but I cut his onion and tomato for him. He is nice
enough about it all, we just thought that as our guide he would have brought his own equipment. Kirstin
and I enjoy our bread, cheese, apples, Iranian fruit roll-up and soda, while Maksat enjoys his mutton
parts, vodka, and a few cigarettes. Different strokes for different folks. I try some of Maksat’s Turkmen
vodka, which tastes really good – it isn’t overly strong and tastes a bit like a martini with a hint of olive

After dinner it is dark and I go back to the crater for more amazement and pictures. Soon Kirstin and
Maksat join me and we all admire the crater together. The moon rises and the scenery is truly
spectacular. Kirstin comments that this would be the ultimate fire temple for Zoroastrians.

The night is chilly but as soon as the sun rises the temperature rises rapidly in the desert and by 7:15 the
sun drives me out of our tent. The photo below shows our camp from the hill next to us. We walk to the
crater again and inspect it in full sunlight, taking a few more pictures. Now it’s time to pack up camp
and head back to Ashgabat, restock and head west to the mountain village of Nokhur. The Darvaza Gas
Crater was a pretty cool sight!

Home Sweet Home - Turkmen Style (June 30 - July 1) – Posted by Kirstin on Tuesday, August 17,
After experiencing city life in Ashgabat and marveling at Darvaza gas crater, I’m excited to move on
and see a part of Turkmen life that many tourists don’t experience, a rural village in the mountains
called Nokur. Our tourist agency, Stantours, has arranged homestay accommodations for us. What a
range of places we have stayed in so far in Turkmenistan: a palace hotel in the city, a tent in the desert
and now a typical home in a rural village. It’s only about 360 km from Ashgabat to Nokhur, but it’s all
on pretty bad roads, so it takes us 14 hours to arrive at the homestay exhausted but happy to be there.

View of the village of Nokhur

The homestay is owned by Gaib and Enebai, a local couple who opened their home to tourists more than
10 years ago. Gaib was the village’s cinema projectionist before he retired. Their 12 year old
granddaughter from Ashgabat is also there visiting her grandparents for the summer. She is really sweet
and a big help to her grandmother. Enebai prepares a delicious meal of vegetarian dumplings with a
cream sauce, fresh tomato salad, bread and hot tea to drink. Gaib, Maksat, Stani and I enjoy this meal
sitting on carpets and pillows under a terrace covered with grape vines, but I’m aware and sad that
Enebai and their granddaughter don’t eat with us. Our bedroom is simple but I like it because the floor is
covered from wall to wall with beautiful Turkmen carpets. This is really a cool place!

Dinner at the homestay

Our room

The next day, Gaib comes with us as we drive to see the village’s main sites. The first stop is the town’s
unique cemetery where each gravestone is topped by a pair of mountain goat horns - locals consider the
goats to be sacred. Nearby is the shrine of Qyz Bibi, the pre-Islamic patroness of women and goddess of
fertility. People come here from all over the country on pilgrimage especially if they are seeking to
conceive a child. They offer up prayers and tie colorful cloths, often in the shape of a cradle, at the small
opening of the cave where Qyz Bibi is believed to dwell or on a nearby tree.

Nokhur’s cemetery

After visiting the two sites in town, we drive for about an hour out of town on a twisty bumpy road, park
the car and then hike to a nice waterfall. Afterwards we continue our drive to a cow and goat farm
belonging to Gaib and Enebai’s in-laws. The in-laws live here in the summer and in the winter go back
to Nokhur. Here we eat lunch and sample some of their cow’s milk, fresh butter and goat cheese. All are
delicious! This certainly is a unique experience that we were not expecting.

The in-laws at the farm

Yangykala Canyon, Turkmenbashi and Border Crossing (July 2 - July 4) – Posted by Kirstin on
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
On July 2, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and found a nicely wrapped birthday present from Stani waiting for
me. It was a beautiful silver tree necklace pendent that he bought in Iran. I can’t wait to wear it! We ate
breakfast, packed up and left the nice homestay early because we had a long slow drive ahead of us to
Yangykala Canyon. Before we left, Enebai gave Stani and I each a pair of socks. I told her thank you
and that she helped to make my birthday very special with her nice gift. I was also surprised that Maksat
gave me a birthday gift - a colorful pretty Turkmen scarf. With the phone calls from my parents and
Stani’s parents and all the Facebook and email birthday greetings from family and friends, I felt very
special and filled with happiness.

Maksat had spoken with one of his colleagues who drew a map of the route to the canyon and advised
that it may take us 12 hours. It ended up taking us 14 hours.

Road to Yangykala Canyon

Our map to the canyon

As we headed into the canyon, we met a caravan of camels coming the other way. I’d say there were
about 75 camels walking on the road to meet us! “Welcome to Yangykala Canyon”, they said with a
smile. Soon their herder showed up on a motorcycle and wanted some water. Maksat gave him one of
his bottles and the herder drank it all but complained it wasn’t cold. Maksat commented to us, “What
can I do?”

One of the friendly camels

This phrase “What can I do?” uttered by Maksat was a favorite saying that we heard repeatedly each
day. It annoyed me the first time I heard it. It was such an apathetic and defeatist sentiment. I really felt
like this is what he would say if something bad actually happened to us. There was a big difference
between our thoughtful and caring Iranian guide, Darius and Maksat. It’s not that Maksat was a mean
guy, I just think he’d rather be doing other things than being our guide. On our way to the canyon, we
learned the origin of this phrase. He picked it up from a German tourist who came to Turkmenistan with
his own vehicle. During a long rough day of driving, they stopped for a break and the German took out a
beer to drink. Maksat told the German that there was a 0% tolerance for drinking and driving. The
Germans response was, “Maksat, what can I do? I want a beer.” He then opened it and drank the beer.
This made me dislike this saying even more!

We arrived at our camping spot for the night, the top of one of the canyon plateaus, just as the sun was
starting to set. It was an incredible landscape. The canyon walls had bands of pink, yellow, white and
brown brushed across them. After a nice dinner and several toasts of vodka, we sat under a canopy of
black sky filled with millions of twinkling stars - as many stars as I think I have ever seen. A pretty cool
way to celebrate your birthday!

View of Yangykala Canyon

The birthday girl

The next morning, Stani and I walked a little to explore the canyons in a different light. When we came
back to camp, I spotted a little lizard hiding under some plants. I was glad it was a little guy and not one
of the huge scary monitor lizards called varan, whose bite is really painful. According to Lonely Planet,
we should also be on the lookout for cobras, vipers, scorpions, black widows and tarantulas while in
Turkmenistan, so walking around was never just a casual walk in the park.

The little guy

We left Yangykala Canyon and drove 165 km west on bad roads to the city of Turkmenbashi (formerly
known as Krasnovodsk before President Niyazov decided it should be named after himself. In the early
90’s Niyazov ordered that everyone call him Turkmenbashi, which translates to “Father of all
Turkmen”) rather than his real name. After driving past police checkpoints at nearly every intersection
in the city and being stopped by one, we checked into Hotel Turkmenbashi and then drove to a newer
section of town where hotels and tall buildings are quickly being constructed. Here there are nice
beaches lining the Caspian Sea. We found a nice spot and splashed around in the Caspian like little kids.
It was so fun!

Entering Turkmenbashi

Turkmenbashi is where the ferry from Baku, Azerbaijan lands. If we hadn’t been able to get visas for
Iran, we would have driven through Georgia and Azerbaijan and then taken the ferry to Turkmenbashi.
This ferry is notorious for having an unpredictable schedule and a sketchy sailing history. A few years
ago one of the ferries sank and all the passengers and crew died. Nowadays instead of repairing the
ships, the solution was to simply limit the number of passengers per route. Obviously this then lowers
the potential casualties. I was glad we didn’t have to take that option.

On the 4th of July, we got up early again to begin our journey to the border of Turkmenistan and
Kazakhstan. Little did we know just what a journey this would be! It was a long drive on acceptable
roads from Turkmenbashi to the town of Bekdash. Here we stopped at a gas station with really old
pumps and got yelled at by the attendant when we filled up with gas. Maksat said “Welcome to your
first encounter with a Kazakh!” As we left the town, we were stopped by yet another police checkpoint.

Stani and the old pump

We continued on and soon the road disappeared and turned into dirt tracks that split and went in many
different directions. Which was the right way? Take a guess and try it. It was a bit unnerving driving and
really not knowing if you were on the right path. How crazy that this was the only border crossing into
Kazakhstan! Maksat had never been here before either, so it was all just a guessing game. After hours of
driving on these dirt tracks, we finally saw another car and asked if we were on the right path. Happily
we were and soon we could see a gleaming white building with gold domes off in the distance. Maksat
said that this border crossing was recently moved so that you wouldn’t go through the poor villages.
There was a big race that was televised and the government didn’t want to have unflattering images
shown of Turkmenistan. So, here we were again, another act just for show!

The Turkmenistan border

We were happy to be at the border and soon to be on our own again without a guide. We wondered how
it would go with the language since neither of us spoke Kazakh or Russian, but we were up for the
challenge. Turkmenistan, what a place. Lavish buildings and monuments, streets and apartment
buildings empty of people, police on nearly every corner, camels, desert landscape and the blue waters
of the Caspian. All these images come to mind when I think of this unique country.

Crossing the Big Country of Kazakhstan (July 4-July 15) – Posted by Kirstin on Tuesday, August
17, 2010

It took us a total of 2.5 hours to cross both the Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan sides of the border. On the
Kazakh side we needed to go through immigration and get migration cards, go through customs and get
a temporary vehicle obligation and get vehicle liability insurance (we already had comprehensive and
collision insurance). There were only three vehicles crossing the border at the same time as us and the
border officials were very friendly. One even walked Stani around to all the different buildings and
helped with translation. One of the bureaucratic steps left over from Soviet times is the necessity of
registering your visa with a migration office (OVIR), but I had read that it was no longer necessary in
Kazakhstan to go to an office since registration takes place when your visa is issued. The process was
unclear in Lonely Planet, at one point they say it’s not necessary and another they say you need two
stamps on your migration card to show you are registered. When we received our migration cards, the
immigration officer stamped it once with a red stamp showing our entry date and also stamped our
passports. I asked about a second stamp but he said “Not necessary.” We then continued onto the next
stop, customs. I asked the customs official about a second stamp and he said “Not necessary.” If it had
just been one official, I would have still been skeptical, but since two different guys told me it wasn’t
necessary, I felt that this must be true (more on this later). I asked about insurance and a different
official said, “This is just steppe” indicating that insurance would be a waste of money, but he said we
could buy it in a large city if we wanted. The officials all wished us well, and we were on our way.

How exciting to be on our own again! The excitement wore off a bit when we realized our attention
instead needed to be on the roads. They were terrible! The only positive thing was that unlike the last
stretch of driving in Turkmenistan where you didn’t know which track to take, here there was a clear
way, it was just a mess. People had made little side tracks to avoid the bad main road, and we ended up
driving on these. Unfortunately the side tracks were really dusty and not so good for the car for extended
periods of time. We drove for about 2 hours and then pulled off the road and set up camp in the desert

Typical road in western Kazakhstan

Our first campsite in the steppe of Kazakhstan

The next 2 days were pretty much just driving days on really horrible roads-gravel with lots of
washboards. Our average speed was about 10 mph. It’s one thing if you’re driving short distances on
these roads, but a totally different thing if you are driving on these all day and knowing that your car still
has almost 2 more months to go and many more km to drive. There wasn’t much to look at scenery wise.
It was like the official said, just steppe. The things we did see a lot of were necropolises (cemeteries),
horses, camels (now with two humps instead of the one hump version we had seen in Turkmenistan) and
oil rigs. We had a bit of a scare on July 5th thinking we may run out of gas. There had been gas stations
fairly regularly up to Shetpe, but after leaving town, this changed and there were none for 128 km. We
reached a small town named Sayotesh and thought there must be a gas station here, but all we could find
was an old pump with 80 RON octane gasoline. We still had 187 km to go on presumably more bad
roads and only a quarter tank of gas left. So, we filled up at the old pump, hoping the car would accept it
ok. Thankfully it did!

Stani filling up with 80 RON octane gasoline

A necropolis

Wild horses

Our original plan was to head northeast from Dossor to Aqtobe, but we learn from several people that
the road is very bad, so instead we head west about 100 km to the big city of Atyrau. What a nice oasis
from all the steppe. Since we’re in a big city, we decide to try to find liability insurance. Thanks to a
helpful hotel receptionist, we manage to find it at BTA Bank for 501 Tenge or $3!

Stani with our insurance agents and our policy

We walked around town soaking up all the different sites. The Ural River runs through the city
separating the European side of the city from the Asian side. How cool! We even found a little taste of
home, a TGI Friday’s Restaurant thanks to all the international businesspeople coming here for the oil.
My chicken fingers were a little more orange than I remember them being in the U.S., but hey I’m not

This was a surprise-TGI Friday’s

In the morning of July 8th we meet a British motorcyclist named Graham who is riding his bike to
Vladivostok. We chat for awhile exchanging travel stories - he’s a lot of fun to talk with. From Aytrau,
he’s heading south to Almaty and we’re going north to Uralsk then west towards Aqtobe and Astana, so
we exchange cell phone numbers and say maybe we’ll meet up again at some point. The roads are great-
what a pleasant change! All around us are fields of wheat. This was from the 1954 Virgin Lands
Campaign where Khrushchev decided to expand the land that could grow things by irrigating the steppes
and deserts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. According to Lonely Planet, “Only under glasnost
(openness) did the downside of this campaign become clear - degraded and over-fertilized local rivers
and lands. By some measures, the problems of erosion, aridity and salinity are on a larger scale than
those of the Aral Sea. One UN report estimates that the country has lost 1.2 billion tons of topsoil.”

Wheat fields

The next two days, are long driving days. The roads switch between good and bad. On the 9th, we camp
very close to the Russian border. So close that we can actually see the lights of Russian factories from
our tent. In a few more days, we’ll enter that big country - the biggest country in the world in terms of
area. On the 10th, we stop for lunch at one of the designated picnic spots. It’s funny to me that the sign
for these always has a picnic table and a pine tree-so far these spots have had neither. The sign makes
these spots look so cozy, but in reality they are just a concrete parking lot usually with a ramp which you
can drive up so you can examine the underside of your vehicle. Stani decides to drive up of one and
noticed that the bushings for the front sway bar were torn pretty bad on the left and just starting on the
right. With our long journey ahead, including the off-road tracks we would see in Mongolia, he said this
was something we need to get repaired. We drive into the town of Rudny and find a Toyota dealership.
Unfortunately it is Saturday and the service station is already closed but several employees are still
there. The manager is really nice and speaks excellent English (he had lived in the U.S. for a few years).
He gives us the name of the part written in Russian and the address and phone number for a Toyota
dealership in Astana which is our next destination.

The next evening we reach Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Actually the president moved the capital
from Almaty (in the southeast) to Astana in 1997 citing it was closer to Russia. Before this move,
Astana was a medium size provincial city, but since the move, the city has been transformed into a
modern international capital. We had heard that Astana’s new architecture was over the top, and I had
visions of another Ashgabat, but I thought the city was really nice. There were interesting buildings,
parks, lots of flowers beds and tasteful fountains. We end up staying in Astana 2 nights at a nice hotel
with wi-fi (unfortunately our blog was blocked. Apparently the government has blocked Blogger
because this is the main website the government’s opposition used to express their dissatisfactions).

In the morning of July 12, we drive to the Toyota dealership hoping that they would have the bushings
we need. A young guy who speaks English helps us. It turns out this is his second day on the job! He
tells us they can do the repair, change our air filter and change the oil all in one hour. We can’t believe it
and are so relieved. Well it turns out that one hour turned into six hours (I think they had to have the
bushings delivered from somewhere else), but in the end we are thrilled to have our car in good shape

Stani, the friendly Toyota serviceman and the torn bushings

Before we left the hotel for the Toyota dealership, I left my jeans with the receptionist to be washed.
Little did I know that it would be such a challenge to get them back! That evening I asked the night shift
receptionist if my jeans were washed. She didn’t speak much English, and I speak less Kazakh and
Russian, so this simple act became a huge communication challenge. I tried to explain that I GAVE my
jeans to the hotel in the morning and now I would like her to GIVE me the jeans back. She smiled and
said “You give me jeans?” We even went up to our hotel room, I thinking maybe they had put the newly
washed jeans in our room and she thinking I would give her my jeans. I gave up and concluded that
maybe they hadn’t finished washing my jeans. The next day, the day we were planning to leave Astana,
I again tried to get back my jeans from the receptionist. I again tried to explain that I GAVE my jeans to
the hotel yesterday morning and I would like her to GIVE me my jeans back. She smiled politely and
said, “You give me jeans?” Argh!!!! I was ready to pull my hair out and really started to wonder if I
would ever see my jeans again. I really liked those jeans, and plus my clothing selection was sparce to
begin with! There was a nice young woman who worked in the hotel café where we ate breakfast who
spoke some English (the most of any staff at the hotel), so I decided maybe she could help me with my
cause. I explained the story to here in front of the receptionist. She nodded and I was finally relieved that
she could understand me. Maybe there was hope for a reunion after all! After a brief pause, she said with
a smile, “You give me jeans?” Oh my goodness, here we go again. I was almost in tears. Several hours
later, the receptionist who I had given my jeans to showed up and miraculously so did my jeans.

The reunion

We decide to leave Astana on the 13th, but first walk around to get a flavor of the city. We walk along
the river to the newer section of Astana. We stop at a new shopping mall called Khan Shatyr , which is a
big leaning tent-like structure made out of heat absorbing materials that will produce summer
temperatures inside when it is -30C outside. The stores and other attractions (including a wave pool and
sand volleyball) are still being worked on, but it’s pretty impressive. We walk towards the Bayterek
monument and come across an art exhibit in the park just below the monument. It’s an international
travelling exhibit called “Buddy Bears”. An artist from every UN country paints a life-size bear that
somehow represents their country. The message of this exhibit is the importance of countries of world
working together and getting along. We then continue to the Bayterek monument, a 97m tower crowned
with a golden ball and take an elevator to the top. The views of Astana from inside the golden ball are

The Bayterek monument in the distance

View of Astana from top of Bayterek monument

From Astana we drive ~400 km to Pavlodar, which we reach on the 14th. The main attraction here is the
mosque, built in 2001 - it’s the biggest mosque in Kazakhstan. Lonely Planet says it looks like an
intergalactic space station from the 1950’s sci-fi films with a green dome shaped like Darth Vader’s
helmet. What do you think?

Mosque in Pavlador

We continue on to our last city in Kazakhstan, Semey. I can hardly believe we have made it across this
enormous country. We check into Hotel Semey, our first real old-fashioned Soviet style hotel. It’s clean
and we’re in good spirits. The feeling of contentment quickly vanishes when we receive a text from the
British motorcyclist, Graham, whom we had met in Aytrau. His text his short, but the message is clear.
He had been pulled over by the police for a routine traffic stop. When they checked his paperwork and
saw that he only had one stamp on his migration card, he was suddenly in a lot of trouble. He said he
spent the next two days in Astana working with the British Embassy trying to sort things out. In the end,
they were able to help him get registered and receive a second green stamp on his migration card, but he
had to dish out ~$100. What a major headache. He knew we only had one stamp because I had asked
him if he had one or two stamps on his migration card when we chatted in Aytrau. Here we were ready
to drive to the Kazakhstan/Russian border in the morning and now we had a major problem on our
hands. We asked the hotel receptionist if they could register us but they said we needed to go to the
police station and try to register ourselves. Nervously we walked to the police. The registration office
was already closed but we could come back in the morning.

The next morning, we decide to first visit the nuclear memorial which was built in 2002 for the victims
of the nuclear tests. Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet military exploded around 460 nuclear bombs in
a research center called Polygon which is west of Semey. There was an unprecedented wave of popular
protest against the testing in 1989, which resulted in the closure of Polygon. Tragically the effects of the
radiation (genetic mutations, cancers, weakened immune systems and mental illness) still linger.

Nuclear memorial to victims

After visiting this moving memorial, we walk to the police station. The door to the registration office is
closed, even though the hours indicate it should be open. We manage to finally find an officer who
speaks English and it turns out he works in the registration office. We tell him that we would like to try
to register our visas and explain what happened at the border. He takes our passports and migration
cards and begins filling forms. He explains that he will be able to register our visas for us, but then
hands us forms that look a lot to me like they could be a police report. He wants us to sign the forms in
several places even though nothing has been written into the form. Stani gets the good idea to call the
US Consulate in Astana. A staff person is able to help with translation and tells us that these are in fact
police reports, but that the officer is simply using these to give us a warning. We will not have to pay a
fine or have any trouble this time, but if we come into Kazakhstan again and don’t register, then we will
have a lot of trouble. He advises us to sign the forms which we do. We are then handed our passports
and migration cards, now with the two stamps (a red one and now a green one). We breathe a huge sigh
of relief. Thanks Graham for the warning!

Now we are able to continue the last 113 km to the border. The crossing goes smoothly, and we prepare
to enter the 13th out of 14 countries for this trip.

How Far We’ve Come as of July 15 – Posted by Stani on Thursday, August 19, 2010
We’ve covered a lot of ground since we started our trip on May 5th. We’ve driven 13,000 miles and
crossed 12 countries: Great Britain, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania,
Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Our route so far is drawn below.

Russia Part I. – The Altai Region (July 15-20) – Posted by Kirstin on Sunday, August 22, 2010
Preparing to visit Russia is a true lesson in bureaucracy! In order to be able to visit, you must first get a
letter inviting you to visit Russia. Basically this involves you paying money to a tourist company and in
return, they invite you to Russia. Then you can apply for your visa, however, in the U.S. you can no
longer apply by mail. Instead you must have a company apply on your behalf. Of course there is a fee
for this service, but unless you can visit the Russian Consulate in Washington, D.C. in person, you have
no other choice. We ended up getting business visas since tourist visas are only valid for 30 days and our
total time in Russia would be more than that. And as you guessed, business visas are more expensive
than tourist visas.

Border sign for Russia

Sandwiched between our time in Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the Altai Region of Russia would be for us,
our first taste of Siberia. We would re-enter Siberian Russia just south of Lake Baikal, but that would be
weeks away and for now we were excited to soaking up Altai and its infamous beautiful scenery.

Our border crossing went off without any big problems. I was a bit nervous we may be asked for bribes
by the officials, but they couldn’t have been nicer. We bought liability insurance at a gas station just past
the border crossing for ~$50. It was a good thing that Stani had exchanged tenge into roubles while we
were in Kazakhstan, because roubles were all they would accept.

In the first town we arrive in, Rubstovsk, we get pulled over by the traffic police. The police officer asks
for our car documents, looks them over, and sends us on our way. No problems. We end up pulling off
the road as the sun is setting and set up camp in a mosquito infested field belonging to a nearby farm.
Because the mosquitoes are so bad, we eat dinner wearing mosquito head nets and walking around - not
a very cozy dinner, but we survive.

Typical mode of transportation in Siberia

The next day we drive to Biysk. It’s raining pretty hard and we drive around looking for a hotel. We end
up staying at Hotel Tsentralnaya, a comfortable and well-kept place that advertises it has wi-fi, but really
doesn’t. Instead they direct us to a cool café nearby where we discover a truly incredible cappuccino.
They are really works of art! The food here is really good too. We end up visiting this café many times
during our two day stay in Biysk.

My perfect cappuccino

I really like Biysk. The older part of town is pretty run down, but it still has character. We visit an Altai
history museum, a beautiful reconstructed Orthodox church and notice all the wooden houses around
which are so typical of Siberia.

Siberian Wood House

Inside of Russian Orthodox church

We continue on to the Altai Republic towards the capital, Gorno-Altaisk. The region of Altai actually
consists of two parts, the Altai Territory and the more picturesque Altai Republic. We stay at Hotel
Ostrov Yuzhny, a house-hotel in the small town of Mayma, near Gorno-Altaisk, where we have a
gigantic house including a kitchen all to ourselves, or so we think, about 8 people arrive around 4:00 am
and take the remaining rooms. The Altai Republic is a popular vacation spot for Russians, but we didn’t
know just how popular it was. The entire drive to Mayma, we are met by continuous streams of traffic
coming the other way. Good thing they’re leaving when we are arriving! We later found out that there
had been a festival of Altai culture just before we arrived, so there was even more traffic than usual.

Jars of honey being sold by the road

Lots of traffic in the Altai Republic

Beautiful wooden church in Gorno-Altaisk

Visiting the Altai Republic is definitely worth it, but there is the extra hassle of needing to register your
visa specifically in the Altai Republic (this is on top of the regular registration that you must have done
every three days with OVIR). We did this in Gorno-Altaisk thanks to the help of the friendly staff,
Lioubov and Anastasia, at a tourist agency called AGUNA. In addition to the special visa registration, I
had read in Lonely Planet that you also need a border permit to drive past the town of Kosh-Agach to the
Mongolian border, which we would be doing. They said you need to apply with the FSB (formerly
KGB) at least 10 days prior to your visit and that this should be done through a travel agency since the
process was very complicated. However, numerous blogs of people who travelled this route said this
procedure was no longer necessary. After our Kazakhstan registration episode, we wanted to be sure
what was in fact the truth. Lioubov, the owner of AGUNA tourist agency assured us that a permit was
not needed if we stick to the main road, M-52. With documents in hand, we begin the beautiful drive
south towards the Mongolian border. Just past Mayma, we stop briefly at a suspension bridge near the
town of Aya. It looks so rickety, but vehicles are lined up waiting their turn to cross. This is a popular
town for vacationers, especially those looking to go rafting on the Katun River rapids. Just south of Ust-
Sema, we start driving on the famous 400 km road called Chuysky Trakt or M-52 to the border. It’s a
lovely winding road with forests, cliffs, a few mountain passes and rivers all around. After driving in
steppe for so long in Kazakhstan and desert in Turkmenistan, this landscape seems like heaven! We
drive all day and as evening approaches, find a campground, but they want $10. Even though this isn’t a
lot of money, we opt instead to camp on our own and find an idyllic spot right next to the fast moving
river. The ground is grassy and soft and the trees and river make it perfect. I’m so happy! Plus it’s free!

Cows on the road – a typical site

Chuysky Trakt

Rapid river campsite

The next day we continue of drive on M-52 to the border. After about 25 km, we stop briefly in the tiny
village of Inya and see what Lonely Planet calls, “one of the most dramatically placed and memorable
Lenin statues in Russia”. A few km further, we find a well-preserved stone idol near the town of Iodra.
Altai is famous for its standing stone idols which were used as grave markers.

Lenin statue

Altai Stone Idol

As we continue towards the border, the landscape turns more rugged, but still beautiful. We have a
picnic lunch at a spot that Stani calls “The perfect Toyota commercial site” because of the beautiful and
expansive scenery all around us.

Our picnic lunch spot

Soon we see signs on the side of the road indicating that we are entering a border controlled zone and
that permits are necessary. Thankfully there are no problems and we arrive at the border.

Mongolia Part 1 – Valley of Death and Naadam Festival (July 20-23) – Posted by Stani on
Monday, August 23, 2010
Mongolia is one of the countries of this trip that I was most looking forward to. The Mongolian Steppe,
huge open spaces, expansive freshwater lakes surrounded by mountains, untouched nature, Mongolian
Buddhism, and a place very different from where I’m from all interested me greatly.

On July 20th at 2:00 p.m. we arrive at the end of the road that climbed its way out of the Altai Republic
in Russia and delivered us to the Russian border post, 20 km before the actual Russia-Mongolia border.
Apparently Russia likes to have a wide buffer zone. Are they expecting the return of Ghinggis Khan?
There is a line of about 10 vehicles waiting at the gate, waiting to get into the actual Russian border post

It takes us 4 hours to get through the Russian post, mostly because we have to wait to be let into the
border post area. Waiting with us are a German couple on motorcycles, a 3-car caravan of Austrians and
Germans in raised and modified Land Cruisers (they plan to cross the Gobi Desert), several Russian-
made cars and vans of Mongolians, and two groups of German hitchhikers looking for someone to take
them across the border because there is a rule that everyone must cross the border in a car. The first
group finds a willing car in front of us but the second would like to go with us. We don’t like the idea
but feel sorry for them and agree to take them just across the border. Just in case they have something
they shouldn’t in their backpacks we tell every official that we do not know them and that we are just
taking them across the border. It turns out they are a couple of real clowns (yes, they even have juggling
pins), and have mooched and juggled their way from Berlin all the way to here. They have almost no
money so people have bought them train tickets, gave them food and money, and brought them all the
way to here. To us this seems like they are taking advantage of peoples’ good will a little too much.

We are very lucky to have arrived at the border when we do because the border closes at 6:00 and we
later hear (not sure if this is true or not) that the border would not re-open for the next 5 days because of
the Naadam Festival in Mongolia (more on this later) and then the weekend.

We drive 20 km to the real border where there is one last Russian check, then after 5 km we come to the
Mongolian border post. The post closes at 6:00 but they stay open longer to see us though, which only
takes 40 minutes. As we stop at the Welcome to Mongolia sign (we think this is what it says) a boy races
over to us on his bike to join me in the picture. It’s really cute and the first sign of Mongolian easy-going

We drive to the first village, Tsagaanuur, where we realize how difficult it will be to navigate our way
through Mongolia. In most of Western Mongolia there are no road signs and often no roads – just 4WD
tracks that have been created by people going in a particular direction. And these tracks change when
they get badly eroded, engulfed in a river, or people move their yurts and flocks.

There should be two highways leading out of Tsagaanuur. One highway should lead south to Olgii and
another east to Ulaangom. But we can’t find either of the two “highways” leading out of this village! We
drive round and round at the edge of town and can’t figure out where to go. There are dirt tracks going
in various directions, but two small lakes, one large lake, a huge fenced-in area (maybe some sort of
military landing strip?), some nearby hills and some farther-away mountains make picking the right
direction and series of turns nearly impossible. All of the roads are just dirt tracks that have been driven
into the steppe. To find our way we ask some guys hanging out and picnicking by their van, then a
shepherd, and then a family at a ger (yurt) how can we get to Ulaangom. Each of them is happy to help
but all we hear are a series of guttural grunts and an arm waved in a general direction. This place is
really different from any other place I’ve ever visited!

It is getting dark so we better find a place to camp. The German clowns want to camp near the “highway
intersection” to find someone to take them south toward Olgii the next day while we want to go east
across the top of Mongolia towards Ulaangom. We say our good-byes and I use the directions given to
us by the locals and do my best to choose the most likely eastward route, also using whatever
information I can get from my two Mongolia maps and GPS. I drive about 5 miles and we set up camp
for the night. Thankfully many of the tracks going in this direction converge as the valley we are in
narrows a bit and we think we are going the right way.

Our camp is beautiful. We are all alone next to a beautiful lake (there is one ger on the opposite side of
the lake) with smooth, beautifully illuminated mountains across the lake and higher mountains behind
us. We’ve arrived in Mongolia!

Today, July 21st, would start out wonderfully but get harder and harder as some of the realities of
Mongolia make themselves clear to us. The sun’s rays are quite intense here at 7500 feet and they
quickly heat up the inside of the tent after sunrise so we get up early. We have some Russian corn flakes
for breakfast and continue east on our gravel track. Soon it becomes clear that we’ve taken the right way
as there is only one track going up the pass to the east. It’s a gentle pass taking us to about 8000 feet,
then down through a beautiful valley. The weather is perfect, there are mountains on both sides of us,
and a nice stream in the center of the valley with lush grass around it. We pass a few beautiful
settlements of 3-7 gers where little kids run out to wave at us and animals graze. We see horses, yaks,
goats, sheep, and some sheep with brown shaggy fur. The road is decent (we can comfortably go 15-25
mph) and gently descends to a dead-level plain surrounded by mountains at about 5000 feet. The photos
below show a view of the valley and an example of a Mongolian ger. A whole family lives in this one-
room house and they move it up to twice a year (e.g., spring/fall) when they move their flocks. Kirstin
comes up with a possible slogan for Mongolia: Mongolia, camping all the time! It’s what we are doing
and so are the locals.

When we first reach the dead-level plain we like being able to see mountains all around us and that the
track allows us to exceed 30 mph in places (photo below). But we quickly change our minds and by the
time we leave this plain 24 hours later we’ve nicknamed it the Valley of Death.

The first difficulty we encounter is that our track becomes increasingly rocky and our speed slows to
about 10 mph. At the same time our track bifurcates into smaller tracks going in all different directions.
Some directions are clearly not where we want to go but others do go in our general direction. It’s
impossible to determine which one is right.

After a while we arrive in a large deserted town that is not on any of our maps. Later we figure that
everyone leaves here in the summer because there is no vegetation in this plain and the mosquitoes are
as bad any anywhere I’ve ever been (including Alaska, Northern Canada and Finland). The roads in the
town are terrible and mostly filled with huge, deep, muddy puddles. There’s nobody to ask which way to
Ulaangom and we worry we will get stuck in the muddy streets. The houses are so closely spaced that
you can’t avoid driving through the puddles. After a while we see a boy outside a building and we try to
ask him which way to go. He runs inside and returns with a man that has obviously been working on a
messy plumbing job. We don’t share a common language but I show him on the map where we want to
go. Unlike the people we asked in the last village, he hesitates and carefully looks at our car before
answering. This registers in my mind but I can’t ask him to elaborate. I’m sure he had a good idea of
what we would encounter. With his directions we find our way out of the eerie town and head north
through the dead-flat plain.

As we travel north our road goes from bad to worse. The “road’ is now completely under brown water
(maybe a foot in most places, significantly more in spots). We would be stuck in the greasy mud under
the water in no time so we need to drive next to the road. But next to the road are mounds of hard grass
with deep water-filled holes between them. We also notice the car is being followed by dozens of huge
flies with big eyes and a spot of green on them. I can see them trying to sting the car with their sharp
piercing mouthparts.

We get out of the car several times trying to find a way around the mounds but soon we go over two
large tufts and the front wheels fall into deep holes. The skid plate under the engine is firmly resting on
top of dirt and tough grass. The center of the car is also resting on a tuft of dirt and grass. Despite having
11” of ground clearance we’ve perched our 4Runner. Thankfully the rear wheels are on nearly dry mud
and I can lock the transfer case so the rear wheels should be able to pull the car free. I put the car in
reverse but the car is too firmly perched and all four wheels spin together, whether in drive or in reverse.
The rear wheels don’t have enough weight on them to pull out the front of the car.

I have two tow straps but we haven’t seen another car since entering this plain. All we can do is try to
dig ourselves out. I find a sturdy stick and along with a large Philips screwdriver we start digging. The
huge flies buzz around us but are strangely more interested in biting the car than us. When they do
occasionally bite us it is a very painful bite. More and more mosquitoes also arrive on the scene and go
to work on us. For the next 3 ½ hours we dig and dig.

We clear the dirt and grass behind the right rear wheel, then the mounds supporting the front end of the
car, I lower tire pressures to 7 psi in the rear and 15 psi in the front (more traction, but you risk pulling
the tires off the rims), and I jump on the rear bumper while Kirstin tries to drive the car out. The car
pivots into a different position but won’t come free. The left rear tire is so flat that the outside of the rim
rests on the tire’s tread and the tire tread is pulled about 6” out to one side. But still the wheels spin. We
need a huge truck to pull us out of this. We continue to dig, clearing more dirt in front of the car and
around the right front wheel. Now we can move forth and back a few inches. In a new attempt with me
jumping on the rear bumper we finally get ourselves out. We and the car are filthy and we are exhausted.
It takes us an hour to clean up, put everything away and put air back in the tires with my small 12V

This is just the beginning of what the Valley of Death would throw our way. We head further north and
soon can start driving on our track again. But there is still nothing around us, just the occasional sheep
skeleton or goat’s leg lying about. Our map shows that we must cross about 4 rivers in this plain. The
first was in the area that we got stuck in. As we arrive at the second we see that this is a real river and
wonder where the bridge is. There are side tracks from our road leading north and south along the river
so we try these. The one to south leads to a crossing that is much worse with water absolutely
everywhere and deeper crossings. There are also animal bones and goat legs all around. The one to the
north has much deeper water and vertical side banks so we go back to our first crossing spot. After
several walks through the river with a vicious swarm of mosquitoes buzzing around me I muster the
courage to drive through and we make it across. The river’s toughest parts are two sections of 10” deep
water, flowing rapidly, with firm, stony bottoms. Normally I’d be braver but with the nearest help (the
deserted town) a day’s walk away, I don’t want to get the car stuck in a river.

In the next 4 miles there are about 5 water crossings and I get out of the car and into the mosquito swarm
each time to scope out the crossing. Each time after re-entering the car Kirstin and I have to kill about a
dozen mosquitoes that follow me into the car.

Then we arrive at the third river. It is clear that there is no way our car or any 4WD car could make it
through here. I walk around for about 30 minutes hoping a way across can be found but it is clear there
is no way across. The crux of this crossing would be two sections, each 10 meters wide, where the water
is about 3 feet deep with very fast moving water. I don’t think one could even walk across without being
swept away and having to swim.

I’m pretty bummed. This is the route I chose to cross Mongolia and it isn’t going to be possible. Yet this
is the northern highway across Mongolia!! What the heck? We have heard that there was more rain than
normal this summer and I suppose in years like this one of the only two east-west highways in western
Mongolia can’t be crossed by car. I’m disappointed but there is clearly no option other than to turn back.
We have three options: 1) go back and continue our trip through Russia, 2) go back and take the
southern highway through Mongolia, or 3) go back to the border town, south to Olgii and Khovd, and
then north along a secondary road to Ulaangom. In any case we need to turn back.

We go back through the 5 small water crossings and through the 10” deep river, getting out into the
mosquito swarms to scope each crossing. It starts getting dark so we end up having to camp in this
Valley of Death. We have peanut butter and jelly on some leftover bread and rice cakes while walking
swiftly to stay away from the swarms of mosquitoes, then dive into our tent. The buggers coat the top of
the tent and buzz around it. To our surprise a small bus pulls up along the tent and about 10 Mongolians
pile out, each one taking their turn to look into out tent. I think they were just as surprised as we were to
see other people here.

The mosquitoes are still there the next morning (July 22) so we pack up the tent and hit the road without
breakfast. We make it through the spot where we got stuck, back to the deserted town and back up the
valley. We have breakfast along the stream on some plush green grass. Near where we camped our first
night we meet an Italian on a mountain bike that wants to ride across Mongolia. We tell him about the
mosquitoes and the rivers and sincerely wish him good luck. Maybe with a bike he can make it across
the big river. He would be the only tourist with their own transportation that we would see for the next
10 days.

Back at the border village we buy 20 liters of 76 pump-octane gasoline (our car requires at least 87)
because this is all that is available in most towns in Western Mongolia and head south on the other
“highway” towards Olgii. The car seems to deal with the low octane fuel ok (it makes up about 1/3 of
the tank). I’m going to try heading south to Olgii, Khovd, then take a secondary road up to Ulaangom. I
haven’t given up on my northern route through the mountains and lakes region of Mongolia. But what
will this highway and then the secondary road look like? After we find the highway to Olgii I’m happy
that it is reasonably good to drive on (20-30 mph). A couple of Russian-made jeeps pass me and I’m
able to stay with one of them. It’s great following in the tracks of a local, experienced driver (my speed
increases by about 50%).

The road becomes extremely steep as we cross an 8500 foot pass and I get to use the low range on the
4Runner (1st gear in the normal range is too tall), but the surface is reasonable and we get over it fine. A
little before Olgii we are treated to our first stretch of pavement in Mongolia. It feels wonderful.

As soon as we enter Olgii it is clear that something really, really big is going on. It’s the Naadam
Festival, an annual festival of the traditional Mongolian sports: wrestling, archery and horse racing. And
here in the far western side of Mongolia, where most people are ethnic Kazakhs, Naadam is a huge
celebration of Kazakh culture as well. There are Mongolians from all over western Mongolia here and
quite a few tourists as well. We meet a French couple, a German couple and a young Danish girl that has
been traveling mostly on her own since December. They have been using local transportation or
hitchhiking to get around. We also meet a friendly local guy that helps us find a hotel and helps us buy
tickets for the Kazakh Naadam concert tonight, which is a really big deal.

The concert is really, really cool. The concert hall is beautiful and the seats are great. We see three
performers (see photos below). The first two perform a mix of traditional and modern Kazakh music and
the third is a cheesy but still fun-to-watch pop singer. The second singer, Makpal, is a REAL performer
and we hear she is the biggest Kazakh star anywhere. I can’t believe we were digging our car out of the
mud yesterday, woke up to mosquitoes in the Valley of Death, and now are sitting here in a Mongolian
concert hall!

After the concert we have dinner with the French, German and Danish tourists and exchange stories into
the night. For dinner Kirstin and I share a chicken leg, rice, carrot bits, and a few fries. What a couple of
days it’s been!

We hear that the next day (July 23rd) is the horse racing competition outside of town but we need to
catch up with some things (money, laundry, gas, groceries, journals, etc.), so we stay in town in the
morning. On the way out of town we buy gas (photo below), and then see a line of cars and trucks about
10 km long, returning from the horse race. Every vehicle is packed with people. Luckily we are going
the opposite way so all we have to deal with is a lot of dust. We pass the place where the horse race was
and there are tons and tons of spectators there. It’s really a huge event. After this we have the road to
ourselves as we head south towards Khovd.

Mongolia Part 2 – More Tough Roads (July 23-29) – Posted by Stani on Tuesday, August 24, 2010
On July 23rd we head south to Khovd, the next aimag (provincial) capital. The road is pretty good and
we make good time until we cross Buraatyn Davaa (pass) and descent to a low plain surrounded by
mountains. Remember what happened in our last low plain, the Valley of Death? Well as soon as we
reach this plain our nice, prominent track splits repeatedly into a number of smaller tracks that go in
every direction. I follow the track that looks like it has been used the most but this leads us in a direction
different from what my Mongolia map and GPS map indicate is the way out of the valley. After a while
the track goes through an area of standing water and this is where I turn around and head back up the
pass to look for a track that we might have missed.

Near the top of the pass a couple with an overloaded small truck motions us to stop and ask if we have a
hand pump because their truck has a flat front tire. I offer them my 12V pump and they are happy I’m
there. I know that everyone used to change tires, even truck tires, by hand but I’ve never seen this done
so it’s fun for to watch and help the couple take the tire off the rim, remove the tube, insert a new tube
and put the tire back on the rim. It’s like changing a tire on a bicycle but much bigger and more work.

We learn that the couple’s names are Duanbek and Farida and they are from Olgii. They just completed
a long trip to China where they bought as many household appliances and furniture as they could load
onto their truck and are now bringing everything back to sell in Olgii. Their truck is a 1990 Mitsubishi
Canter with 231,000 miles. It has no front brakes, the main gas tank has a leak, and all the tires are
cracked and are even missing pieces of them. But the couple is able to cross the mountains into China in
this overloaded and underpowered 2WD truck. Amazing!

Unfortunately the tire won’t hold air. We must have pinched the tube while mounting the tire. We take
everything apart again, fix the tube and remount the tire. Now when we inflate the tire the tire valve
jumps into the rim and can’t be reached to finish inflating the tire. The tube must have been twisted and
the pressure pulled the valve into the rim. It’s dark now so Kirstin sets up our tent about 50 m from the
road and we park our car next to it. We can see a couple of gers about a half mile away but otherwise
there is nobody here. In a short while Duanbek and Farida join us in their tent, a camouflaged pop-up
tent that says “US Army” on it with a “made in China” label. I’m reminded of Kirstin’s
slogan…Mongolia, it’s camping all the time.

The next morning (July 24th) we remove the tire a third time, untwist the tube and remount the tire
again. But once again the valve jumps into the rim! But Duanbek is able to fish it out with an ingenious
tool he makes with some wire and a screwdriver. This time he uses two old washers and some epoxy
glue to keep the valve from slipping into the tube and the tire can be inflated. I have to say I really
admire Duanbek and Farida. They are hard working, clever and self reliant. There’s never any thought
of giving up or calling for help. There’s a problem and they just keep working on it.

Before we leave we ask Duanbek how we can get out of the valley ahead and reach Khovd. He draws us
a detailed 3-part map and we are on our way.

We drive back into the plain and try to follow Duanbek’s map as best we can. When a local on a
motorcycle passes us going the other way we ask him to confirm that we are heading in the right
direction (toward Khovd) and he says no, it is in the opposite direction through the plain. Maybe we
aren’t interpreting Duanbek’s map correctly? So we go the opposite way but the track becomes really
small and we can’t imagine this is the right way. A few hours later we’ve tried every road and each one
either leads in the wrong direction or becomes a really, really tiny road that just about disappears. We
ask a shepherd and then at a ger and everyone tells us to go in the opposite direction from what our map
and GPS tell us.

Kirstin starts to get really scarred as it appears we are not going to find our way out of this plain. I’m
worried about the ugly sound that our car’s drivetrain made several times in this plain – an intermittent
sound like a CV joint or wheel bearing going bad. Plus it is very difficult communicating with locals.
We come from two completely different worlds and speak two totally different languages. There is
really nothing in common between Mongolian and English. Our only choice now is to go in the “wrong”
direction and hope that the car continues to drive. Thankfully after a few miles the track becomes more
prominent and is clearly the “highway” we want, even thought it goes in the wrong direction. The car
noise also goes away. Maybe a stone had worked its way into the brakes and now freed itself again.

So the track I took last night was actually correct and this is also the direction that all three people we
asked indicated. Duanbek’s map was also correct but we interpreted how the first and second parts fit
together incorrectly. What confused us was both our Mongolia maps show the road going out of the
valley in the opposite direction and directionally (from my GPS) the road goes the wrong way for a
about an hour’s drive before turning and heading for Khovd. It’s taken us 18 hours to go 5 miles.
Crossing Mongolia is not easy!

But now the road is relatively good and we make our way to Khovd. Our guidebook says there is a
tourist ger camp just north of town and even gives GPS coordinates. But even this proves difficult – we
have the coordinates and know which direction to go but can’t get there! There is a river, a fence, some
bushes and industrial buildings in the way. After an hour we give up and look for a hotel in town. Here
we get an entire apartment for $27 that is really nice. We buy some groceries and enjoy a pasta dinner in
our room.

The next day on July 25th we head north toward Ulaangom. At first the road is great, then good, then an
ok dirt track that keeps splitting but the options rejoin after a little while so we are able to stay on track.
We are joined by the nicest family as we eat our picnic lunch. We share some food with them and their
kids are so grateful, we show some pictures from home and enjoy each other’s company.

After a full day of driving we are nearly in Ulaangom and I pull off the road and behind a knoll where
we enjoy an absolutely idyllic camping spot. There is steppe all around us, we can see for miles and
miles, the temperature is perfect, there are a few clouds and sunshine, we are near the road but out of
sight. It’s incredible being here.

On July 26th we get back on the road believing that in 45 minutes we will be in Ulaangom. But it
wouldn’t be so easy. It rained at night and the road is wet. First there are a few small streams to cross but
then about 10 miles from Ulaangom we come to a really big river. There is a truck parked on the other
side, wanting to come my way and the driver points to where he thinks the best crossing is. I assume he
is waiting for the river to subside. I walk through the river many times, finally agreeing with the driver
that where he pointed is indeed the best place to cross. This is a serious river crossing. The water is 2
feet deep, the riverbed is made of 10” boulders, and the water is rushing so fast that it runs up my leg to
about 3 feet and it is very difficult to stay upright. I think this is about the limit of what our car can do
and after several hours I’m ready to try the crossing when a Russian-made 4WD van and a truck
carrying Mongolians arrive on my side of the river. They are skeptical that my line across the river is
best so we investigate two possible lines together . I do most of the crossing while they do most of
watching (photo below).

The Mongolians don’t like either of the crossings and when a local comes by he tells the two vehicles
about a 20-mile detour to another river that has a bridge! So I follow the van and truck through the
detour, which I would never, ever have found myself. The photo below shows the truck and its “cargo”
driving in front of me. The whole bed sways back and forth as the truck goes around turns and the entire
truck looks like it is going to tip over.

We make it to Ulaangom, stock up at the grocery store, buy gas and check internet, then start our long
drive to Moron, the next aimag capitol. This drive is the longest section between two aimag capitals and
would take us the next four days (July 26-29). The roads are generally pretty bad and a full day’s drive
equals 100-150 miles.

At Uvs Nuur, a huge shallow salty lake, the road splits several times and each time the two options are
only a few of degrees apart, yet they gradually diverge. There is no way to know which track to take.
But luckily we have the GPS track of some Australians that drove from Ulaangom to Moron (and they
made it) in 2004 so we can pick one track, drive a little, then check our GPS if we are on the
Australians’ track that leads to Moron. These four days we have our invisible Australian friends guiding
us to Moron. I can’t imagine how long this would take us without their track.

Along the way, we see many eagles, horses and camels. At one point we come up to a large brown
object that we wonder what it is. As we get closer we see it is a pack of camels all bunched so close
together that it looked like one large brown object. Our quote of the day, spoken in a tone that says it’s
totally obvious, is “It’s a camel pack.”

One of the villages we pass is Dzuungovi, a very nice little Buddhist village. It is clean, people are
working together, there is a nice temple in the center, and more people ride horses than drive cars. It’s
really cool. We get some 80 RON gas from an unmarked pump after a long discussion of whether it is
gasoline or diesel and continue on our way.

At one of the places we camp we see a jumping rodent with a pom-pom like fluffy thing at the end of its
tail. It jumps upright on its hind legs like a kangaroo, is nearly as big as an American squirrel, and is
really fast. It runs right to our camp and Kirstin has to shoo it away. That night, just before we get into
our tent, 4 horses arrive and stand close by. It is unnerving but we think they either somehow feel secure
by us or they are curious. Below is a photo of our surreal camping spot where we are visited by “the
hopper” and the horses.

At the village of Tes the gas station is out of gas but we need to fill up. We ask a guy in town if there is
anywhere else to buy gas and he kindly get on his motorcycle and drives us to an unmarked hand-crank
pump at the edge of town. He gets a woman from a nearly house and we fill up with 80 RON gas (I
think). This is our second fill-up with really low octane fuel. The photos below show the man that
brought us to the pump and me “pumping” gas.

We camp in the steppe and the next day we drive 10 hours and get 130 miles closer to Moron. It is a
rough road and very slow going.

On the third day of our journey from Ulaangom to Moron there are lots and lots of muddy sections. A
4WD with good ground clearance and off-road tires is absolutely necessary today. During the first six
hours of driving we don’t see a single vehicle. Where are all the tourists, we keep saying. But then we
come to a village and just outside that village at a small stream with muddy banks we encounter a small
truck stuck in the mud. I’m able to get through the mud and then pull the truck out. I’m in 4WD low
range and on dry dirt and just as all four wheels start to spin the truck comes free.

The driver and his 7 passengers are elated and immediately bring out some vodka. In traditional
Mongolian fashion, the first cup gets thrown to the wind to honor the sky gods. This is a mostly
Buddhist area but Shamanistic customs remain. After many thanks and a few pictures we are all on the
road again, all heading toward Moron.

After a long day of driving (160 miles in 12 hours) we pull off near the top of a pass near 6200 feet to
camp. We notice there is Edelweiss growing around us, as well as lots of other small flowers. It is a
beautiful spot. It’s a chilly night, and when I check the temperature in the morning it is only 42F.

On day four we finally arrive in Moron where we have lunch in a hotel restaurant, stock up on food from
a grocery store and buy 92 RON gas from a real gas station. Then we drive north to Khatgal on
Khövsgöl Nuur, an absolutely beautiful freshwater lake surrounded by mountains. The road to the lake
is pretty bad. But we are super happy when we arrive because we’ve made it this far, about half the
distance we need to cover in Mongolia, and because we plan to spend the next couple of days relaxing
and doing activities that don’t involve our car or roads.

Mongolia Part 3 – Khövsgöl Nuur (July 29 – August 1) – Posted by Stani on Thursday, August 26,
At 8:45 p.m., after 4 really long and difficult days on the road we arrive in Khatgal on the southern end
of Khövsgöl Nuur, a beautiful and huge freshwater lake surrounded by mountains visited by Mongolians
and foreigners alike. We stay in our first ger (yurt) at MS Guesthouse (photos below). I marvel at the
efficient construction and the cool and simple wood stove. It gets cold at night after the fire in the wood
stove goes out.

The next morning we drive about 30 km up the west side of the lake (on a great gravel road) to Toilogt
Camp, where we stay in a tepee typical of the reindeer herders that live up in the mountains (photo
below). Our tepee has a queen bed, a wood stove, 2 small tables and a clothes rack. It’s really cool.

Nearby are buildings with bathrooms, hot showers, and sinks, as well as a round building where you can
buy meals for breakfast, lunch or dinner. There are lots of foreign and Mongolian guests staying here
and it is great getting to know a few of them. We meet an Australian family, two physics professors
from Indiana, and even a guy from Arlington Heights (he went to Rolling Meadows High School and
knows Scott Applequist) that now works for the US Embassy in Ulaanbaatar.

In the evening we go for a walk along the lake (photo below) and then ride horses with a guide for a
couple hours (also below). My horse goes nuts when she sees her two foals with the rest of the herd
across a field but I manage to stay on her and we all get back to camp ok. It’s so great not to be in the

The next morning (July 31st) we rent a couple of nice kayaks from our camp and paddle south along the
coast for about 5 ½ miles. We are surprised that there isn’t anyone on the water on such a nice lake.
Many Mongolians run to the shore to take pictures of us when we paddle past them.

We have a picnic lunch on a small strip of land with grass and pine trees that stretches into the lake to
form a loop. The views in all directions are just beautiful. After a little while we are joined by a herd of
yaks that walk past us and into the water.

It’s a tough paddle back because the wind has picked up and now we have to work against a headwind
and decent sized waves. But after a little rest and some food I’m ready to go back out and experience
more of this beautiful place. I go for a 45 minute run, only the third time I’ve gone running on this entire
trip (Germany, Czech Republic and now Mongolia). After my run I jump in the lake but it is ice cold (it
just thawed on June 15th!) so I only stay in for about 30 seconds.

The next day (August 1st) we drive back to Khatgal and Moron and stay in a hotel there because I’ve
come down with my second case of food poisoning on this trip. I violently throw up, feel nauseous, have
bad aches and pains, my skin hurts, my arms and hands tingle, and I have bad stomach cramps. It’s
incredible how painful food poisoning can be. But we are in a nice hotel and I’m able to recover quickly.

Mongolia Part 4 – Amarbayasgalant Monastery and North-Central Mongolia (August 2 – 5) –
Posted by Stani on Thursday, August 26, 2010
After a wonderful time at Khövsgöl Nuur it is time for us to begin the final part of our journey across the
top of Mongolia. On the morning of August 2nd I recover from my food poisoning and we take care of a
bunch of necessary things: do laundry in our hotel sink, buy food, gas, get a haircut, and buy a
Mongolian SIM card for one of our phones because both of our phones have stopped working. We have
been getting a good signal in the towns but our phone calls won’t go through. Our Mongolian SIM card
works fine. On the way out of town we pass the town’s wrestling stadium with some statues in front of
it. Wrestling is one of Mongolia’s national sports. Below is a photo of one of the statues.

At 1:30 p.m. we are on the road out of Moron. Today the road is a gravel and dirt road but it is much
better than what we had before Moron. We are able to average more than 20 mph for the first time in a
long time. Plus there are kilometer markers, which is so nice because each one reassures us that we are
still on the right track. Along the way there is a beautiful rainbow that stays with us for a long time.

We cover 120 miles today and make it half way to Bulgan. We camp on the side of the road at the edge
of a Birch forest. After dinner as it is getting dark a herd of horses comes to us once again. They walk
straight to us, then feed and hang out close by. They’ve done this 3 times now. We wonder why they do
this. Is it because they are curious? Or do they feel secure around us (from wolves)? But then after a
while two Mongolians on horseback round them up and lead them to the yurts close by.

The next day, August 3rd, the roads are unfortunately not nearly as good and our average speed for the
day drops way below 20 mph again. It starts to rain and the road becomes a greasy, muddy mess.

After a while we come to an area where a paved 2-lane highway is being built. In places we can drive on
the gravel that has been built up but at other times we have to drive next to the road being built and there
is no road there to take. Sections of trees, extremely deep mud, super greasy sections of mud, and
standing water all must be negotiated. How can people build a highway and not have a detour while it is
being built? Plus each time we have to get on and off the “highway”, there is no ramp to do this. You are
on your own.

After getting down one particularly greasy hill we stop for lunch and watch in amusement as many
vehicles try to get up and down the hill. Some make it and some get stuck. There are cars, SUVs, mini
trucks, a sheep wool truck and a convoy of fuel tanker trucks. We nickname some of the vehicles:
“Baaaaaad news for sheep wool (a truck overloaded with a gigantic cargo of wool, with some of it
falling out the end), oh, little truck is REALLY stuck now, u-oh it looks like the tanker convoy is
ditching their trailers!” Eventually everyone seems to make it. Our last day on dirt is a real challenge!

Eventually we reach the section of road that is finished and it is really nice pavement. We arrive in
Bulgan (a larger town), buy some gas and groceries, then have trouble finding the paved road to Erdenet,
but eventually do find it. The map in Lonely Planet is totally wrong but the locals tell us where the road
is. We drive 20 km, pull off the road, drive across a field and behind some trees for a really nice
camping spot. Tonight I add pressure to our tires. So far in Mongolia I’ve been running ~18 psi and now
I optimistically put 25 psi into the tires for the roads in the rest of Mongolia that should be much better.

On August 4th we drive the last 30 km to Erdenet on a great paced road. The 30k are covered in a flash!
Erdenet is a large and modern (for Mongolia) town. It has a population of 73,000 and the main street is
lined with concrete buildings about 4 stories high. We check internet in an internet café with modern
computers and a decent internet connection and get some groceries but are unable to see the mining
museum (closed until September) and copper mine (they want 20,000 Torog just to drive in). The
copper/moly mine is one of the largest in the world and consumes 40% of Mongolia’s energy! We get
back on the road toward Darkhan, stopping for lunch at the top of a pass. Then after asking we find the
gravel road that goes north to Amarbayasgalant Khiid, one of the most significant and beautiful
Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. The monastery is at the end of a 35 km gravel road with a few
muddy spots and a couple stream crossings. As we get there a boy rides past us on a horse and I’m able
to quickly snap the photo below.

Amarbayasgalant Khiid is beautiful and is set in a stunning valley. It is Mongolia’s most intact
archeological complex and is filled with beautiful Buddhist artwork. It was built 1727-1737 by the
Manchu Emperor Yongzheng. It is a Mahayana Buddhist monastery (same as Tibetan Buddhism). For
200 years it was a flourishing monastery, but in 1937 the Soviets executed the 200 monks living here
and destroyed many of the religious relics, books, sutras, thankas and Buddhas, but thankfully tore down
only 10 of the 37 temples, probably because the local military chiefs were sympathetic and
procrastinated. After Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the artwork, religious meaning and
symbolism, and culture are overwhelming. Today 30 monks, mostly young boys, live in the monastery. I
think the hope is to rebuild a community of monks here as this batch of boys grows up. There is also a
lot of restoration going on.

Before visiting the monastery we check into a really nice ger camp next to the monastery that is run by
the monastery and profits go to help support the monks and restoration. Our ger has painted artwork on
our table, chairs, support posts, ceiling rods and door.

After moving into our ger we walk to the monastery, whose front side is shown in the photo below.

Upon entering the monastery you first walk through a building containing four protector gods, two on
each side. There protector gods are common in all of the Mahayana Buddhist temples I’ve seen in India
and now Mongolia. Their purpose is to protect Buddhism. Usually they are painted near the entrance,
but these are huge, larger-than-life figures are especially impressive.

In the monastery most of the buildings are open to visitors and contain beautiful temples. We see some
of them on our own but are soon joined by a boy monk that proudly shows us around and tells us exactly
how many prayer books there are, how many columns each building has, how many statues in each hall,

The photo below shows the main prayer hall.

The boy monk we meet shows us a small stupa next to the main hall, climbs in, spins around three times
and climbs back out. Then he says I should do the same. The stupa is really small but the monk is so
nice and I’m feeling playful so I squeeze in and do the same. But just as I’m extricating myself from this
holy symbol the supervisor monk walks by and gives us both a cold stare. I feel really bad and try to
explain that this wasn’t my idea and that we were just playing. The next day, I see some other
Mongolilan adult visitors doing the same thing so I feel much better about the whole thing. Below you
can see the stupa and me standing next to it.

The monastery is closing for the day so we walk back to our ger but on the way we walk up to a giant
golden Buddha being built above the monastery and then a huge stupa. Below are three photos showing
the monastery and the valley it is and the giant stupa.

We are really, really impressed by everything here and take lots of pictures. What a wonderful last sight
and experience in Mongolia! We enjoy nice pasta dinner on the lawn in front of our ger and then retire
to our cozy, wood-stove heated home.

The next day (August 5th) the ger camp serves us breakfast and then we visit the morning prayer
ceremony. We are surprised that it is just kid monks with only one older one. They are a little
disorganized and the kids are being kids. But it’s cool to see the service. Below you can see the monks
gathering in front of the main prayer hall.

After the ceremony we pack up our things and head back down the gravel road. At the first stream
crossing we wash our car. It’s gotten super dirty and it looks so nice being clean and shiny again. In an
hour we are back on the paved highway heading for Darkhan. After Darkhan we pass through Suhbaatar,
which will be our last town in Mongolia. We buy gas and some groceries but still have a little money
left and can’t find a bank that is open so we buy a bottle of Ghinggis Khan vodka. Ghinggis would travel
with us all the way to Vladivostok.

We drive out of Suhbaatar and find a really nice camping spot about a kilometer off the road. It’s a
really, really nice camping spot. The Russian/Mongolia border mountains are to our north, we can see a
stupa to our south, we are in a little valley where nobody can see us, and there is grass to camp on. We
have a nice Ramen-noodle style dish for dinner with a candy bar and some vodka for dessert. A great
last night of camping in Mongolia!

Back in Russia & Lake Baikal (August 6-11) – Posted by Kirstin on Friday, August 27, 2010
Anxious to continue our journey, we arrive at the Mongolian/Russian border about 8:45 a.m. Until now,
there have not been too many other vehicles waiting at the border crossings with us, but here at our final
land border crossing, we arrive to find ~20 RVs lined up ahead of us. We learn that they are from France
and are part of an organized 3 month driving tour from Paris to Peking and then back to Paris. In
addition to the convoy of motor homes, an adorable Citroen (a.k.a. “The Duck”) is also taking part in the
adventure. After what we have experienced in Mongolia, I’m in shock that such a vehicle could make it
out alive! Vive le France!

The citroen – a beast with panache!

Unlike the quick border entry into Mongolia, the exit takes 2.5 hours – most of this time is spent running
around to different officials, getting stamps, having our name recorded in multiple logbooks and having
our car inspected multiple times. We even get recorded twice in one log book by two different officials,
once as Stani Bohac, and three lines down as Bohac Stani. Once we have completed all the tasks, we
still wait, for what I’m not sure, but the official says we can’t leave. We keep asking, and she finally
says we can go. When we reach the Russian side, it’s like a breath of fresh efficient air. The officials are
very thorough and check our passports and visas numerous times, but after completing their checks, we
are allowed to enter Russia. We buy liability insurance at a bank in Kyakhta, a town near the border
since it’s not available at the border crossing.

Then it’s on to the city of Ulan-Ude which we reach after about 250 km on decent roads and stay at
Hotel Ayan a few km outside of the downtown area. It’s so great being back in civilization! We
celebrate by eating a nice dinner at an Irish Pub in the city. Unfortunately the next day, Stani has
stomach problems so we stay an extra night in Ulan-Ude so he can recover.

With Stani feeling a little better, we decide to head out of the city and on to our main attraction, Lake
Baikal – the largest freshwater lake in the world. Before leaving the city, we can’t pass up the
opportunity to see the world’s largest Lenin head statue in the center of town.

After leaving the city, we come to an unexpected ferry crossing. While we’re waiting, we witness a
tractor pulling a car out of the water – hopefully our car will not see a similar fate – and meet two
Germans who are also travelling with their own vehicle, a 1984 Toyota Land Cruiser. Sandra and Holger
had been living in Perth, Australia and are now driving back home to a small town near Hannover,
Germany. How cool! They could have just packed up and flown home, but instead they’re taking the
long way home. We’re thrilled hearing their experiences of driving from Vladivostok to Ulan-Ude since
we will be travelling that way and that we can share our experiences of Mongolia since they’re headed
that way. We’re doing some of the same route, just in reverse! We decide to caravan at least to the first
town on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, Gremyachinsk.

The road is great and we’re happy to have new travelling companions. We stop for Sandra and Holger to
fill up with gas. A few hundred meters after the gas station, their vehicle putters to a stop. Holger tries to
start it without success. After much discussion and examination, Stani and Holger think that the problem
is bad gas. Stani tows Holger back to the gas station and incredibly, Holger just happens to have a
siphoning tube which he uses to remove about 60 liters of the bad stuff into the station’s containers. He
exchanges the 92 octane gas for 95 octane and we all hope the result will be different. At first it doesn’t
want to start, but after quite a bit of revving the engine, it finally does. Yeah…Lake Baikal here we

We continue to drive on so-so roads to Gremyachinsk and find a great spot past the town nestled in the
trees on the shore of Lake Baikal. What a day! We make a fire and enjoy the sunset over Lake Baikal
with our new friends.

Unfortunately several young locals who have consumed too much vodka decide that our campfire looks
cozy too and nestle up and overextend their welcome. They finally leave, and we go to bed only to be
woken up from a near sleep with their shouts of “Russian vodka? ” and “Kristina!” How did I become so
lucky for them to remember my name? We waited in our tents and eventually they went away.

The next morning we were thrilled to discover a nerpa seal resting on a rock nearby our camp. I was
really surprised to see the seal since I thought they lived further north and west, but here it was. So cute!
These seals are unique because they are one of only two types of seals in the world that live in fresh

The nerpa seal taking a rest

View of Lake Baikal from our first campsite

We are enjoying being in such a beautiful location that we decide to stay a little longer and continue
further north to Svyatoy Nos Peninsula. We had heard that it is one of Baikal’s most impressive sights
with rocks jutting up from the water. The road to the peninsula is pretty bad – a lot of washboards,
rocks, and construction - but we’re all still in good spirits when we reach our second ferry crossing. Next
to the loading area, there are stalls with different kinds of local treats. One of the most common is a
smoked fish called omul. Although we passed on sampling it, supposedly it tastes a lot like salmon.

Vendor selling omul

The second ferry ride

After more off-road tracks, we reach a stretch of campsites all beautifully positioned right on the water.
We select one of the few remaining sites and set up our tents. Holger and Sandra do some vehicle
maintenance, and Stani and I take a nice walk to scope out a possible hike for Stani for the next
morning. The mosquitoes come out in full force, and I wonder what pest I’d rather be with, mosquitoes
or drunk young Russians?

The next day, at the wee hours of the morning, Stani sets off for a hike to the highest point on the
peninsula. Below is his description of the hike.

My alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m., I start walking from the tent at 4:35 and reach the trailhead that we
found the night before at 5:00, where I start up the trail.

The trailhead is at the level of Lake Baikal (1500 feet) and the top, called Makarova, at 6100 feet. It is
about a 4 mile hike from the trailhead to the top. For the first 30 minutes it climbs gradually in a nice
forest path.

At about 5:30 the mosquitoes wake up but just as they get bad I rise to a higher elevation where the
underbrush and trees are less dense and the mosquitoes are gone. Just about now the sun also rises and
I can see some of the sunrise through the trees. It was chilly until now but now the temperature is perfect
and there is a clear blue sky. The trail climbs steeply for the next hour. There is a trail sign that says
50% grade. I don’t know if this is accurate but the trail does just go right up the mountain.

After about 2 hours from the trailhead I reach a beautiful cross on a small peak. After this the trail is
less clear but mostly still ok to follow. It either follows the ridge or the ridges right side. A couple of
times it gets scary because the way becomes a boulder path with a pretty steep grade on one side and it
isn’t clear if this is really the path or not. This photo shows the ridge and the lake behind it, looking

After a couple hours on the ridge (four hours total) I get to the top. I can see the sand bar, the lake in the
sand bar, the bay where we camped on, much of Lake Baikal, the shoreline, even the shoreline on the
other side of the lake. I also have a nice view of the plateau that I’m on. The weather is really nice.

 After a short while I meet Tom and Marina. Tom is an American from Cincinnati and Marina is a
Russian from Irkusk. They climbed the peak together yesterday, camped on top and are now coming
back down. Tom came to Lake Baikal by the Trans Siberian Railway and did a 2-week trail building
program on the northeast side of the lake. We hike down together and it is fun talking to Tom. It makes
the descent seem to go much faster. Route finding is also much easier going down because you can see
where the trail is for some distance ahead. We get down in 3 hours and after a quick swim in Lake
Baikal I jump in the car and we hit the road.

While Stani is hiking, I sleep in. Sandra and Holger pack up and leave in the late morning and I relax on
the beach reading my book, “The Life of Pi”. After Stani gets back, he jumps in the lake to cool off and
then we start the drive back. We have to wait at the ferry crossing for 2.5 hours and end up camping near
the lake again. The next day is our last glimpse of the beautiful “Blue Pearl”. We soak it in with a picnic
lunch and then it’s back to the first ferry crossing and the city of Ulan-Ude for one more night. We enjoy
the evening at a cozy restaurant on the main walking street where I try my first bowl of borsch in Russia
– yummy and devour a delicious Greek salad.

Driving through the Biggest Country in the World (August 12-18) – Posted by Kirstin on
Saturday, August 28, 2010
The next several days we focus on driving the many kilometers from Ulan-Ude to the final destination
of our Big Trip, Vladivostok. Before the trip, I had read that the roads, especially past the city of Chita,
were horrible, and we had also heard that maps are wrong and navigation is really difficult. But after
talking with Sandra and Holger, I’m much more optimistic. A lot of road construction has occurred and
is still happening as we drive. Unlike Mongolia, whenever a road closed due to construction, they take
the time to make a decent detour.

The back page of our atlas says it all

It rains on and off pretty much each day, but since we’re in the car, it doesn’t bother us. After about 1.5
days, we reach our first big city, Chita. Here we find a restaurant with wi-fi so Stani can work on trying
to arrange shipping for the car once we reach Vladivostok. After lunch I walk into the city while Stani
continues working on the computer. Even though it has been just one day since we registered our visas, I
know that we will have several days ahead of us where we will not be able to register, so I want to try to
find a way to do it while we’re in Chita. Lonely Planet mentions that it’s sometimes possible to register
at the post office, so I make this my first stop. Unfortunately I’m handed some forms, but told I cannot
register on my own – I need a hotel or tourist agency to do it. After some walking around, I find a tourist
agency, but they say they cannot do this for us either. I walk back and meet Stani. The lights had gone
out at the restaurant for him, so he hadn’t been able to get as much done as he needed, so we find a hotel
with a café & wi-fi. I ask the receptionist about a room and if they can register our visas, but she tells me
they can only register us if we stay there for more than one night. This whole registration thing is really
a pain! Since the hotel won’t register us, we decide to save our money and find a camping spot outside
of Chita and hope we’ll be able to register somewhere else.

Before leaving Chita we stop briefly to admire a beautiful Russian Orthodox church near the train
station. Then it’s back on the road again (did we ever mention that Willie Nelson’s song, “On the Road
Again” is our theme song for the trip?). Just outside of the city we switch from the road M-55 to M-58.
This new road will take us all the way to our next big destination, Khabarovsk. There is even a km
marker at the start of M-58 reminding us that we have 2,165 km to go!

Perfectly proportioned domes of the Cathedral in Chita

Only 2,165 km to Khaborovsk!

We spend the next 3.5 days driving to Khaborovsk. The road fluctuates between fair, great and
excellent. I almost feel like I could be on a road in the U.S. Along the way we try to find a place to
register our visas – even asking the police in one town – but no one seems to be able to help us. We
camp each night in a spot that is unique from the previous night (gravel pit campsite, shopping mall
campsite, pretty swamp campsite). At gravel pit campsite, there are quite a number of mosquitoes and
the sky looks like it may rain, so we decide to sleep in the car for the first time. I’m excited to get to
finally test the platform, curtains and screens that Stani worked so hard on designing and making before
we left on the trip. I love it and think it’s super cozy but it’s a little too short for Stani to really stretch
out. Shopping mall campsite is another gravel pit but it is so large that Stani says they could build a
shopping mall here.

A stretch of the excellent section on M-58

The car camping set-up

We notice that as we get closer we get to Khaborovsk the number of police speed traps and checkpoints
increases. I had been bragging to Stani that whenever I drive, the police let me go through without a
stop, but now this changes and I average at least one police stop per day. They’re always interested in
seeing our car documents and after a brief scan, they send us on our way. I did however getting pulled
over once for speeding (going 60 kph instead of 40 as we enter a village). Thankfully the police look at
our documents and let us go without a fine.

In the afternoon of August 17th, we finally arrive in Khaborvosk. Located on the Amur River, this is one
of the most beautiful cities in the Far East of Russia. We check into Hotel Tourist and have trouble
getting our visas registered because it had been more than 3 days since we last registered. I explain that
we had tried numerous times to register and after a phone call, the manager eventually agrees to register
us. She says it is the law to register every three days and that in the future we must insist that people
register us. She then proceeds to say she can register us through August 19th even though we are only
staying there through the 18th. The logic makes no sense to me! After unpacking a bit, we walk into
town passing Lenin Square and find a delicious pizza restaurant called Manhattan Pizza. We end up
liking it so much that we go back there for lunch the next day. We wish they could open a chain in Ann

Lenin square near our hotel

The next day we follow a walking tour of the city which is listed in our guidebook and see many nice
things including a renovated Russian Orthodox Church called Khram Uspenya Bozhey Materi. With a
bit of sadness, we leave Khaborovsk and start our last leg of the trip - the nearly 500 km drive to
Vladivostok. We see a big roadside sign telling us we’re on the Moscow-Vladivostok highway. It’s a big
sign for a big road in a big country!

Khram Uspenya Bozhey Materi

Big roadside sign

Vladivostok (August 19-30) – Posted by Kirstin on Sunday, August 29, 2010
Mid afternoon on August 19th, Stani and I arrive at the final destination of our Big Trip, the city of
Vladivostok. We are filled with mixed emotions as we roll into town. Excitement, thankfulness and
amazement that we made it, but at the same time sadness that our trip is now really coming to a close.
This was always the ending point of our trip, and now we are actually entering the city.

Stani in front of the Vladivostok city limit sign

Vladivostok was founded in 1860 and quickly became an important naval base. Due to its seaside
location and close proximity to neighboring Korea, Japan and China, this city also became an important
merchant city in the early 1900’s. Foreign presence declined however under Stalin – he deported or
killed most of the foreigners - and during the Cold War from 1958-1992, Vladivostok was a closed city
to the outside world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Vladivostok was reopened, but a new problem
emerged – the mafia. Things have begun to calm down (although several locals we spoke with
complained about corruption), and this city is in full swing getting ready to host the Asian Pacific
Economic Conference (APEC) in 2012.

Our most important task to take care of in Vladivostok is arranging the shipping of our car back to the
U.S. Stani spent a lot of time researching and arranging this before we left the U.S., but now all these
arrangements need to followed up on and secured. While we’re in Vladivostok, Stani spends a lot of
time communicating back and forth with all the parties involved. I’m grateful that he has such patience
and good sense when dealing with this complicated process. We have a customs agent, Yuri Melnikov at
LINKS, who helps us with filing all the necessary documents to clear customs. Ro-Ro (roll-on-roll-off)
shipping from Vladivostok to Yokohama, Japan is arranged with the shipping company, FESCO and
after a lot of back and forth, we’re told that our car will ship on Sept 9th. From Japan the car will be
shipped Ro-Ro to Longbeach, California by Orient Maritime, our Japanese shipper. If all goes according
to plan, the 4Runner should be back in the U.S. the end of September. From there it’ll need to clear
customs and be put on a semi-truck and transported back to Ann Arbor.

Since we are going to be in Vladivostok for such a long time, we decide to leave the city on August 20th
for the weekend to explore something different. Our customs agent, Yuri, suggests we do what the locals
do and take a ferry to nearby Russky Island. This island was completely militarized until earlier this
decade when it was opened to the public. We line up for the ferry around 5pm and are told that the ferry
can only take 4 vehicles at a time, so we should expect to wait in line 4-5 hours. Since this appears to be
a popular attraction, we decide to stick it out and wait. Around 9:15pm, we finally are loading our car
onto the ferry. The ramp is steep so many cars scrape their undersides as they get on and off the ferry.
While waiting in line, Stani meets a local, Ivan, who works for FESCO. Ivan invites us to join him and
his group at a camping site on the island. Ivan is nice and so is his girlfriend, so we agree.

Once we’re all off the ferry, we follow them to a beach on the other side on the island. There are many
other vehicles and tents set up, clearly a popular spot, but eventually we find an ok place to put our tent.
Well this turns out to be the party beach. Music blares from one car equipped with a gigantic speaker in
its trunk until 4:30 a.m. The music resumes at 6:30 a.m. I am very annoyed by the music, but worse than
that is a horrible itchy rash that has spread over my entire body. I must have brushed up against some
kind of plant, and I’m reacting strongly to it. I get very worried when my lip and tongue start to swell.
The next day I take some Zyrtec which I get from Ivan’s friends and in about an hour, the rash is
completely gone. Ivan’s friends say they think I brushed up against the plant ambrosia. We thank Ivan
and his friends for their hospitality, but decide to leave the party beach in search of a quieter place to

On the other side of the island, we find a camp with many tents set up on platforms. I walk in and find
out it is an Evangelical Christian camp. I ask if they have space for our tent, and they are happy to let us
stay. What a difference this place is compared to the party beach campsite! It’s so peaceful here and
everyone is really nice. After setting up our tent, we drive and explore the island. We find a navy
museum where you can see big guns built into the hilltops and other navy equipment used to defend this
part of Russia. On Monday morning we pack up and head back to the city. We feel like we’ve had a
vacation from our vacation.

Ferry to Russky Island

Once we’re back in Vladivostok, we check into Hotel Azimut, our home for the rest of our time in here.
Our room is definitely old fashioned Soviet style with a musty smell (Stani calls it musty sweet home),
but the view of the bay from our porch is great, the room is clean, breakfast is included and there’s free
wi-fi in the lobby.

Hotel Azimut

Our room as we prepare to pack

Even after a long weekend away, we have plenty of time to explore Vladivostok. We follow a walking
tour listed in our Lonely Planet guidebook. We start at the train station and see the marker indicating the
final stop for the famous Trans-Siberian Railway – it’s a 9,288 km train ride from Moscow to
Vladivostok. We walk past the home where Yul Brynner, the famous actor from “The King and I”, was
born and visit an interesting regional history museum. Included in this tour is the beautiful Triumphal
Arch and an S-56 submarine. Our final stop on the tour takes us to a great look-out of the entire city.
Other days are spent exploring the city, seeing a Fort Museum, Car Museum, reading and preparing to
leave for home. We also have lunch one day with an American from Minnesota, Jeff, who lives in
Vladivostok with his wife Renetta, a local, and their son Sebastian. We met Renetta at a gas station
when we came back from Russky Island.

Trans-Siberia terminus

Triumphal Arch

S-56 submarine

On August 27th, we meet up with Yuri, give him the keys to the 4Runner and he drives it into the port.
Since we are foreigners, we are not allowed in the port. We are sad to be separating from our vehicle
that has been with us for so many km. It’ll be parked in a parking lot next to the port until it is loaded on
the ship to Japan.

One day after we drop off the car, on his way to the car museum, Stani sees a chopped up car that
frighteningly looks like ours! He studies it from a distance for about 20 minutes before finally
concluding that it really isn’t ours because it has gray fabric seats. This chopped up car business we later
learn is done as a way to avoid paying the 100% vehicle tax that the government charges on imports.
Since the pieces arrive as parts and not as a complete vehicle, no tax is charged. Once the pieces arrive,
they are then welded back together and then sold. It’s crazy to think that people would rather buy a
Japanese car that has been welded back together than a Russian built vehicle!

We are also told that the Russian government will be implementing a ban on importing Japanese cars
starting in October in an effort to try to get people to buy Russian made vehicles. As a result, people are
importing Japanese cars like mad before the new law goes into effect.

On August 30th, we get up early and pack all our belongings from our nearly 4 month adventure.
Because we’re shipping the car ro-ro, nothing could be left in it. Amazingly we are able to fit everything
into our allotted four pieces of luggage and two carry-ons. The taxi picks us up from the hotel and takes
us to the airport. It’s hard to believe that we are really going home. What an adventure we have had - it's
truly been the experience of a lifetime!

Big Trip 2010 traveling companions – Stani, Kirstin & the 4Runner

Big Trip 2010 – Our Route, Some Statistics and Final Thoughts (August 30, 2010) – Posted by
Stani on Sunday, August 29, 2010

Our Route

We can hardly believe we’ve completed our journey. I dreamed up this adventure about 10 years ago
while staring at a map of the world on my wall and now we’ve done it.

In our own car, travelling west to east, we crossed Europe and Asia. From Dunnet Head in Scotland we
drove southeast to Esfahan in Iran, north through Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, then east through
Mongolia and Russia to finish our trip on the opposite side of Eurasia in Vladivostok, Russia. Our route
was determined by these things:

1) Travel from Atlantic to Pacific Ocean on roads with own 4WD vehicle
2) Visit the places that we were most interested in (everything but especially Scotland, Turkey, Iran and
3) Only go through places where we felt it was safe enough to travel through
4) Where governments would allow us to drive through

A Few Statistics
18,521 miles (29,800 km)
124 days
14 countries visited:
Great Britain, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran,
Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia

More statistics for engineering or accounting types:
898 gallons of gasoline used (3393 L)
20.6 mpg average fuel consumption (11.4 liters per 100 km)
34.8 mph average moving speed (56 km/h)
532 hours moving. This averages to 4:20 hours moving each day.
Most expensive fuel purchased: Great Britain at 2.02 US dollars/liter (7.65 dollars/gallon)
Least expensive fuel purchased: Iran at 0.30 US dollars/liter (1.15 dollars/gallon)
Turkmenistan fuel was cheaper but not if you consider the km based road tax that foreigners pay

Final Thoughts
Now that our Big Trip is over it is back to life’s other challenges but we will always remember our Big
Trip. We are proud that we, our car and our belongings made it through this adventure. We challenged
ourselves, learned many things, and had a great time. We want to thank all of the wonderful people we
met along the way and all of the people at home that helped make this trip possible. I hope that we were
good ambassadors and guests to the people and places we visited and that we can also be ambassadors
for the people and beautiful natural places we visited by bringing some of their good will, culture and
beauty to our family, friends and country. Bye-bye and happy travelling!


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