#SubaruOfftrax – Blimey! We’re finally over the pond

After months of planning and online countdown timers the five of us have arrived in the UK. With each of us on different flights, coming in on separate dates, from different locations in Canada and the US, we’ve made it to the first of 32 countries.

 
After celebrating Canada Day (July 1st) together in Central London amongst a sea of red and white, Team B (Elly, Michael & Andy) headed to southern England and made camp at Nic & Masha’s (old rally friends) in Bournemouth. While in London, Jess & Corinne were hosted by the high-kicking Jenn Good and her flatmate, Roari. During this time, Corinne got to scratch off Wimbleton from her bucket list and gather amongst thousands to see Canada’s own, Arcade Fire headline Hyde Park. During this time, Corinne made a swift trip to Brussels and back to meet with Subaru and pick up our wheels for the next four months, XV.

We were also fortunate enough to meet with Joanna from Charity Rallies (http://www.charityrallies.org), our protein sponsor, Aivaras from The Meat Makers (http://www.themeatmakers.com), Clive from Robens (http://www.robens.de) and Jacob from Cocofina(http://www.cocofina.com).

Now with wheels and all our gear, we made a quick exit out of London and headed for the coast, any coast.
Outside of Bristol we found our first fast of British beaches in Brean. Though not the best water to swim in, we did enjoy being seaside and had the surprise of being allowed to drive on the beach!  A first go at our tent was a success and we celebrated watching the game at a local pub, where we were fortunate enough to receive free pitchers of whatever was on tap at the end of the night, as we happened upon the pub’s weekly cleaning of the taps. BONUS!
With so much to see and do we got up early after a restful, cozy night in our new tent and hit the road, again not to sure of where we would end up.
We quickly made it to the opposite coast and discovered a red sand beach amongst high cliffs in Shalton. To our delight we made many stops en route to see many stags, cows and castles. Matt Sully, a co-rallier got in touch and suggested we all meet up in the surf town of New Quay, Bang on! Now back on the SouthWest Coast we were stunned with beautiful white sand beaches and surrounding high cliffs. Upon Matt and Mike (Team Mongolistic Four) arrival, we left our meals to greet the boys in the parking lot. 60 seconds later were turned back to see a swarm of gulls ravaging our meals; fish, chips and all! Note to all: never leave your food unattended anywhere. Over drinks were shop-talked while guessing at our adventures that lay ahead us…

While in Bournemouth, Elly & Michael found accommodation at Darren’s, out by Bournemouth University, a brilliant man, who has Blitz Disco. He was a most generous host and Andy crashed at Nic’s. Upon arrival the Legacy Outback purchased on eBay a month ago looked great, however, the brakes were nearly nonexistent . Luckily by putting in all new brakes, it made the world of difference. The new tires sponsored by Nokian are awesome!!! and will withstand the “stan” countries. In their down time, they managed to tour the area checking out the Jurassic Coast which runs for 100 miles along the coast, featuring deep emerald greens to the deepest azul blues of the ocean. And for the hell of it a quick jaunt into Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre, a world of monkeys, all rescued from various beach resorts where they were used for tourist entertainment.

The entire team came together soon in Bournemouth. Over a weekend we installed our PIAA lights, had the best meals yet, courtesy of Ollie, our new friend from London, inaugurated the cars with a pouring of champagne, learned about British gambling thanks to some down time at a local William Hill where Jess bet on Holland coming in third at the World Cup and won 5.62 pounds!! Well done.

 Before heading back to the city and into our GoWithOh apartment we made a quick side trip to Brighton for the day to see what it was about; gorgeous pier and pebble beach. Worth the detour indeed!

 

With just a few more days till we set off on the adventure of a lifetime, we’re making final last minute vehicle adjustments, photos shoots, discovering our new neighbourhood of Hammersmith and trying our best to at least start the rally organized and with a feeling of preparedness. Though we all know, one is never prepared enough for what lies ahead.

photo

#SubaruOfftrax – A world of bureaucracy: or how an embassy “lost” our passports before we left Canada!

This blog post is dedicated to anyone either considering embarking on this type of adventure, or curious to know the “behind the scenes” of organizing this trip. And no, this is not the “what do I need to pack for 4 months on the road” post. But, now that I think about it, we will entertain you with that as well. Its day 1 and I’m already ready to toss 1 t-shirt into the “you’re going to be a pyjama, then I’m going to wash the car with you” bag.

First, if you’re going to drive across 32 countries, you will not only need to pack a load of patience, but also a big bag full of sarcasm. You are in fact NOT going to an all inclusive in Mexico, so sit back, pour yourself a strong cup of coffee, and be ready to drive yourself mad figuring the visa puzzle out. One country at a time!!

Good thing that everyone on our team has travelled enough around the globe to know that the proverbial “s–t will hit the fan”, can happen at any given time. With this said, none of us saw what I’m about to tell you, happening. Guess, literally EVERYTHING can happen.

Driving East requires quite a few visas, and pending which nationality you come from rules vary: Visa or No Visa is the question!

Most of the time not only you need a visa, but also an LOI (letter of invitation) to the country. So, unless you’ve been to Russia before or any of the “Stans”, I’m pretty sure you’ve rarely heard of this mysterious piece of paper (an email really) that allows you to actually apply to a visa. Basically, you need to get in touch with a local business  or tourist agency (local as in their country…not Canada) , and ask them to invite you to, lets say: Azerbaijan. Said “piece of paper” comes with a cost varying from $20, to $40 to $80 US.  

Once you have this in your hand, then follows the visa application, which seems quite easy, if only the information was actually clear on some of the countries embassies websites. And what I mean by that, is that sometimes its unclear on their website if  a)  you need a visa; b)  how much it will cost c)you need an LOI d) how long will it take  e) a+b+c+d all together !! So, its a bit of a logistic nightmare to figure out which visa you should be applying first to make sure you can fly out of your country, passport in hand. Oh, and did I mention that months in advance you need to know when you are entering and exiting the country you are applying for as well? So, tip 1: figure your route out 6 months ahead and guess-timate everything! 

For the records, the only visas we could apply to before leaving Canada were: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Russia and Uzbekistan + the LOI for Turkmenistan. For the other visas we still need this will happen at the border.

Ok, let the fun begin. Once you have figured points a, b, c and d above mentioned, you will need a printer, a photocopier and what seems like hundred of passports photos that make you look like you’re about to go to jail. Seriously, the “no smiling ” on a passport photo makes everyone look like they are about to enter North Korean gulags.

Now, besides all this, each country of course has different requirements: different number of passport photos (& sizes…. Of course can’t all be the same cuz that would be easy!), scan(s) of passport, signatures, a gazillion copies of the application printed, and so forth. Once you have quadruple checked that you have everything they require, put all in a FedEx prepaid envelope, insert all above paperwork + you’re passport and send it off .  Yes, you read it right: the passport goes away from you in hopes it will come back with a big full page  visa sticked onto it!

Then, you wait, and you torture daily the shop you live above to ask if a FedEx envelope has come in. Poor Richard from Stellar Cellular was on the look out for months, and I’m sure he celebrated when we finally left Toronto!

When the passports come back with the visa in, you quickly start the circus all over again. On a funny note, the Russian embassy is in Toronto (on Bloor street), so we actually did apply in person. Now, remember what I said about points a, b,c and d above? I should also add a point e) when applying in person, being lots in translation does happen. So when Jess went to the Russian embassy she said: “I need to apply to double entry visas for Russia for these 4 passports”. The Russian employee somewhat understood she wanted our visas done “RUSH”. Bottom line we spent as much as a full week in a five star  all-inclusive in the Bahamas for our Russian visas! Whatever you do,  don’t mess with Russia. Say “spasiba” and move on.

So, whats up with an embassy “losing our passports” you ask? Well, Canada doesn’t have all the embassies, so we sent 3 Canadian + 1 Italian passport to the Uzbekistan embassy in New York city. Time required for visa: 10 days. Last time our passport were seen and tracked by FedEx? May 30. Departure date for Jess: June 26. Plenty of time right?  Until this: the FedEx tracking number doesn’t exist. As, its never been used. As in, the embassy MUST still have our passports. When we called the embassy they said they had sent our passports back on June 9….!!. Then FedEx said: no, we have not been to that building in at least a month! So, where are our passports you ask? Lost. But not only our passports are lost, also all of our visas as well. Yup, everything you read above, lost. Gone. Uzbekistan was the last of the 5!

So what do you do when you have to fly out of the country in 48 hours? The day of said flight, you head to passport Canada, you declare your passport lost and you dish out $ 270 for a rush passport! About 4 hours later you go back to pick up your brand new passport (with no visas), you take your flight, you land in London and spend the first 2 weeks of your vacation before a massive adventure, running around all the embassies across this massive town, and you re-apply to everything!! LOI, visas, etc etc $$$$$$$$$$$ —- but in pounds!

With this, you also miss flights to Barcelona and Corinne ends up going to Brussels to pick up the car without Jess. Thank goodness for double citizenships!! Otherwise we still wouldn’t have picked up the car!!

So, if you’ve read this far, we have all of our visas back. Its been quite a stressful last 3 weeks as you can imagine, but we finally hit the road, passports and visas on hand.

Im sure the visa nightmare is still not over, as along the road we will have to apply for visas at borders. In the past, teams have been stuck for days in the process. But, as they say, this is also part of the adventure.

Till the next border….

Offtrax

photo 1.PNG

 

 

 

#SubaruOfftrax – Getting into the flow of things

July 20-27th

With a mid morning start in London from our apartment in Hammersmith courtesy of GoWithOh Apartment Rentals, we left OfftraxOuback (Elly, Michael & Andy) in London and headed to Dover to catch our ferry to Dunkirk, France.
Hello, mainland Europe! Not even an hour on the road we felt we needed to see the North Sea and its beaches in Niuwpoorte, Belgium. After an extended stopover we hit the road and didn’t call it quits till 10pm. Whew! First day in and we’re already tired and about to sleep roadside at a random service station in Belgium. Setting up our Robens tent was done easily thanks to some practice beforehand in the UK. Quite surreal to camp out at service station amongst the truckers….
The following day we drove just a 100km to Luxembourg City where we ran into The Gingerbread Men, a fellow team from Scotland. After a quick walkabout the small ‘city’ we grabbed some local brews and hit the road again, aiming for somewhere in Germany. At the last minute it was decided to visit the head office of Subaru Germany. Hello Volker Dannath and team. Over coffee and some photos we discussed our lengthy trip ahead us and were back on the road in no time. Having our brand new XV we were cautious to push her on the autobahn…save that for our way back! The drive to Nuremberg was scenic with wind and solar farms dotting the way. Being in Nuremberg we had to eat the local specialities. Unfortunately for Jess that meant A LOT of sauerkraut, while Corinne tackled a massive pork knuckle. Who knew Frank’s Red Hot tasted good on sauerkraut?!?! Later that evening approaching our hotel we could hear a couple getting it on. Soon to discover that the noise was coming from 3 floors above in our hotel, on our floor. Never forget ear plugs!
The next day started off slow and dreary-musts been the rain…
After crossing into Czech Republic we immediately stopped for gas thinking it would be cheaper than the Euro. Wrong! So pricey. Thankfully the Czech brews were dirt cheap and plentiful (that were not consumed, just packed in the back for later 🙂 Enroute to Prague we just so happened by chance to have the opportunity to visit the Pilsner Urquell brewery, (thanks to Jess’s navigating and influence). Now we drank the cold goods over heavy duty typical Czech food. Meat sweats anyone?
The drive into Prague near sunset was stunning! The statues, colours of buildings, bridges. Wow! We hostel’d it up in the city somewhere near the crazy TV tower with babies climbing it. Parking proved to be tricky as we were mainly in a residential area, but after some persistence we managed to find a spot on the street side. In a nearby park we pulled out the large map and over beers we planned the next week or so, making tough decisions. Unfortunately due to timing, etc we were going to have to pass on making it to see our Rickshaw Run buddies, The Austrians and have to forego Milan and Corinne’s hometown, Pavia. With that decided we were free to head out and eat sampling more local food and drink.
Considering we have close to 4 months of travel, it never feels like enough and we’re always on a tight schedule trying to pack in as much as possible, but having to make room to get our work done (photo editing, uploading, and the evil curse of s l o w wifi, always testing our patience).
Therefore the following morning we were up by 7amish to move the car and at the famous Charles Bridge by 9am, letting the exploration begin. Again, its the buildings and the amount of detail put into them, along with the cobwebbed statues that always gets us. So different than North America….
That afternoon we met with a local photographer and Subaru rep to tour the city for photos, hitting the Presidential Palace amongst other sites. Our car, she sure likes getting all the attention… Took a earlier night after sampling beers at a local distributor, Beer Geek. Favourites of Prague: buildings & beers.
Early the next morning we finally met up with OfftraxOutback gang outside the city in a campground on the river for breakfast, then just an hour’s drive to Kutna Hora, the town home to the church made of bones, 1000’s of them! Despite the hoards of tour buses, it was well worth the journey to see such a creepy, unique, in your face kinda setting. Due to major construction, the drive to Bratislavia, Slovakia took 4hrs instead of 2hrs. Though we were only going to be in the country for a few hours / kilometres we still had to buy a vignette for the car, costing too many Euros. While GPS on our phones rhymed out crazy street names, we struggled to keep up over so much laughter I swear our GPS is Slavik…. After checking out the quirky ‘blue church’, we toasted overlooking the Danube. Back on the road and still on the hunt for ice, which is impossible to find, we stopped at a massive Tesco just outside the Austrian border thinking we’d score there….nope. It was a sweet girl at McDonald’s that came to our rescue. With the CocoFina Cooler now properly chilling, we set off for Vienna. By dusk, we knew we couldn’t reached Vienna and so settled an hour outside in the Linz area at a campground that just so happened to be located next to the worldest largest chair! How lucky are we?!?!
As I was saying, to fit everything in, sacrifices need to be made. This morning was one of them, getting up at 5am to get to Salzberg, shoot the sites, then hightail it over to the Subaru offices for a meet & greet with the staff. This however meant, that by noon we were in the Alps and entering the famous Grossglockner Park. Though 34 Euros to enter may be pricey, it was well worth every cent. Throughout the 48km of road we encountered several ‘test cars’, motorcycles and cyclists! The idea of cycling 48km up and down curvy roads hitting an altitude of 2571m is nuts! Props to all those doing it on bike.
Needless to say the views were amazingly beautiful; some all green, other areas of glacier and snow at a chilly 8 degrees! On top of it all we celebrated amongst fellow drivers and cyclists with a cold one. Lower down at a warmer temperature we set up camp for an unforgettable evening in the alps.
The drive down to Italy was equally as beautiful the next morning, and full of hairpin turns. Immediately upon entering the autostrada the Autogrill logo was seen and espressos were consumed. Best chain of service stations I’ve discovered. A must for anyone visiting Italy, as you’ll quickly fall in love. As planned, we headed to the Marepineta camp north of Trieste to meet the Outback gang. No sooner had we had the teepee and tent setup, a mini ‘bora’ roared through the area bringing a ton of never-ending rain. Once the Outback arrived we set up shop in the rain and started the ‘reunion’ party with a wet bbq and a few Aperol Spritz.
With rain forecast for the next week days we had a slow start, but eventually made it into Trieste for a seafood lunch. By late afternoon the sun appeared and so did we, at the beach now. WooHoo the Adriatic Sea! Knowing we had an early drive day we called it quits at a respectable hour.
After our first week on the road we’re feeling much more comfortable, both in the car, of which we spend an average of 8hrs in per day, organizing everything, routing and most importantly, our expectations. Onto week two and into the unknown!

#SubaruOfftrax Week Two Highlights

July 28-Aug 3
Both the XV & the Outback set out for Subaru Trieste, Italy for a quick photo, and fixing for the Outback, which in turn separated us again, as they were a few hours behind. Entering Slovenia was a breeze with roadside roast pigs and lamb throughout. After a quick stop to pick up local brews, (which we’re tracking in Untapped under Offtrax & JessWatt) we were entering Croatia and a new currency, the kuna. Pushing to make it as far down the coast as possible, but not sacrificing beauty, we drove the scenic coastal road. On one of the road there’s aqua blue waters and the other dry arid white rocky mountains. It seemed like every little alcove had a home or two in it, with a boat and sometimes pebble beach. Gorgeous and quiet….that is till we hit the city of Split, Croatia’s second largest. It appeared that this was the dividing line between quiet and hoards of vacationers. So this is the Meditteranean Corinne warned us about… After viewing half a dozen campsites or as we call them, caravan shitholes, we finally settled on one that at least gave us a bit of space and we didn’t have to wake up to a neighbour’s kitchen. Yes, some of these caravan sites are full out. Complete with gardens, water coolers, individual kitchens, the works. Trailer park living I guess…or European cottaging?
The Outback crew hooked us up with a sweet site overlooking the sea. With the sun in full gear, Elly and Corinne tested out the Scrubba ‘washing machines’ while Rubber Duck Andy & I tested out local beers. After a late afternoon swim at the nearby ‘beach’ or concrete slabs as it essentially was, we grabbed a bus for the old city. Nothing like a disappointing dinner to sour the night.
The following day Corinne & I set out to walk the high walls around the city-a total of 4km. Stunning views of the sea and the tiled roofs of the city. Also in sight was nasty looking storm South of us in MonteNegro. Great, we were heading into more rain… On the opposite of the border, now in Monte Negro, we made our first stop at the ‘Hip Hop Fresh’ Supermarket to stock up on local specialties and random meats that looked decent. Driving along the Bay of Kotur, a large fjord-like bay surrounded by lush mountains. The colour of the water was aquamarine and the twists and turns on the tiny road kept us well alert. With some fancy yachts on the water we knew this surprising beauty attracted riches. In the wee town of Kotur there was massive traffic, so I jumped out leaving Corinne in a dead stop. After walking about 20min into the centre and to cause of the traffic, (a minor accident that the cops wouldn’t move) I ran into Rubber Duck, Elly & Michael and a massive 2l cold beer. Corinne, still stuck somewhere in traffic would have to wait and wait.
Our drive to the camp area was wildly close to the water and single lane. The local buses flew through, barely slowing down for anyone to get through. We were inches away from going off road with a drop off to the bay. Lesson learned (again): size matters. To add to the crazy drive, that massive storm we saw earlier hit hard with a consistent downpour, making it hard to see anything.  We camped that night further down the bay at the worst camping area to date. Chock-a-block we were amongst the fellow patchwork, dive caravans.  We sat in the car hoping the rain would let up for about an hour, as we watched Michael and Rubber Duck set up gypsy in the rain. Upon completion, we hauled ass to gypsy, getting completely soaked. The hard rain, thunder and lightning continued on for another few hours, as we partied in the gypsy.
Needing to push on, we left the Outback crew and started the long drive to Sarajevo, a place that Corinne grew up with in the news everyday, living so close to it in Italy. The super informative history museum was our first stop to best understand what happened back in the 1990s and how WWI started. It was intense to walk around the city / former war zone to see buildings littered with bullet holes. There was one particular building that really stood out for us; a former retirement home that had been bombed to shit, still stood on the main road, now covered in graffiti with weeds growing around. A constant reminder of how things were….
Our next stop was Belgrade, Serbia took longer to get to than it should of. Now with no GPS, we managed to take the long road north thru Croatia in Serbia. Let’s just say driving into a city of a few million at night is not ideal. Due to exhaustion we didn’t even get to take the best out of Belgrade’s nightlife as we were done.
In Hungary, another detour, we had our worst meal to date, minus the fish soup and goulash. A dish of 52 fried potatoes, yes 52, and a cordon bleu-styled ham with a garnish of fried cold cuts. Nasty! Even the 52 potatoes were bad. What was scary to us was, a table of four next to us, with two kids inhaled the exact same dishes in no time, WITH mayonnaise! I’m guessing all the surrounding fields of sunflowers aren’t just for their seeds, but more so for the oil.
Over in Romania, we were on the ‘hunt’n for one of the world’s Top Ten Waterfalls, a must-see in your lifetime kinda thing, or so we read. The Bigar Waterfall. Well, again without GPS and minimal signage we wasted over 3hrs trying to find it. Only to be told it was another 100km out of our way. With our luck that damn thing would have been tried up in the extreme heat, so we called it quits and went for our goal of Sibiu, the city with eyes. Note, to anyone ever attempting to drive Romania: there are cops everywhere, radar sectors don’t detect and the average speed limit is 40km/hr, meaning it takes forever to get anywhere. Super frustrating… Thankfully upon arriving in Sibiu hours later, the ‘eyes’ of the local homes were upon us. Despite not having a place to stay, we were mesmerized driving around, with all eyes on us. Seriously this is something you have to see to fully appreciate. Many homes in Sibiu have a certain architectural feature that has the upstairs window(s) looking like leary eyes. Its particularly creepy, walking around, knowing you’re being watched, but we love it.
Having driven the Grosglockner back in Austria, we couldn’t pass up the Transfagarasan-another criss-cross, windy road up and over the mountains that is only open during the summer months. Very choice with many opportunities for photos and free!With the number of rabid dogs in Romania our push to the Bulgarian border was fast & furious, calling it a night just short of the border in Giugu. Here we got a dive hotel, where thanks to a table of drunk locals we ‘learned’ about Romanian wines, foods, and tuica, a plum brandy. Wowza!
Best of the week: Montenegro, Sibiu, Romania and Sarajevo, Bosnia

#SubaruOfftrax Week Three Highlights

Aug 5th-13th

The Romanian-Bulgarian border is like driving through a war zone, minus the violence; derelict buildings, zero signage, BUT a bridge tax, I suppose it for fixing it???
Now with our trusty newly purchased GPS, we headed off the beaten
trax to Buludzha, an abandoned USSR building in the hills of central Bulgaria. There is NO WAY we would have found this place 200km out of our way without GPS coordinates. Finally seeing what we have read about was more than words can describe…. As we had read we had to ‘break in’ to the crumbling building, but once on the main floor in the centre it was STUNNING! Mosaic murals encircled us as the hammer & sickle looked down on us.Out on the balcony the wind was fierce, and the view of the surrounding forests neier-ending. WOW! This is most definitely best kept secret out of guidebooks.
Meeting the others in Nessebar, Bulgaria we spent a few chill days on the beach, getting a taste of the Black Sea. As Corinne paraded around the pool and beach in her Shark Suit ringing in Discovery’s ‘Shark Week’, I made the mistake of trusting Elly with a pair of scissors and my hair.u
After sleeping indoors, Corinne and I were itching to get back out in our tent and with Greece a short detour from Turkey it was a no brainer….till GPS steered us by way of the Turkish border! Upon entering our first concern was if our Turkish visa was just single entry-thankfully not, so we continued onto and into Greece. Immediately after crossing borders we noticed the change-gas stations, even large multinationals were boarded up and small towns were abandoned. Continuing on, we felt for awhile that something crazy must have happened, like the plague or something, as there was no signs of life. It was like life had stopped all the sudden. Arriving in Alexandropoulous on the Aegean Sea life started to pick up, but not by much. We found great camping on the beach and were back into ‘tent life. As expected there were little options for food, but one lone tavern on the main road. Turns out this was not only the lone option, but the best option. Spartakus, the owner of said place simply asked what we like to eat and he would take care of it. No menu, no prices, just trust him. The array of local delicacies was non stop, as was the local plum brandy. He taught us how to drink it, with a sniff of a pickle, a sip of the goods, then another sniff of the pickle and a wee bite, over and over again. The more he drank, the less he could speak English, so we started making friends with others, all of whom were police, except one, Gregory who was a Subaru- Super Fan. Through hand gestures Corinne was led to his apt upstairs were he showed off all his Subaru garb proudly, then his car. Upon seeing our car, he wanted to know everything about it, have his photo taken, etc etc. During our conversations with the police dudes we learned how the poor economy had affected each one individually and how most small towns have been dying off and that people couldn’t afford to drive.This explains it….
Onto to Istanbul, which we had thankfully visited earlier in the year, so sites like  the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia and the bazaars we could skip. Instead we could focus on what we missed last time, like chocolate pudding from a century old confectionary shop and lamachun, our favourite turkish food. The OfftraxOutback gang introduced us to Salih, their hotel manager, who took us us late that night for shisha, drinks and fun. What a character!
Having been to Cappadoccia before we opted to drive the Black Coast for the next few days leaving OutbackOfftrax to experience the magical land. The drive to Amarsra was lengthy, but as suggested, well worth it, being right on the sea. the following day we drove perhaps 2hrs and spent the day on the pebble beach in Cide, staying at an elderly couple’s home. Here we met a couple from by way of Spain doing the same route. For the next few days, we would meet them up, having the same guide book and agenda. Beers, beach, sun and surf=perfection. With the same intentions, the following day we drove about 5hrs to Sinop, where we found the prettiest campsite to date, right on the beach, with minimal guests. So good to be back in the tent and have the space and time to play badminton in-between swimming.
The next beach town we camped at was in Uyne-not as picturesque as Cide or Sinop, but decent nonetheless. We camped overlooking the beach, but with pest mosquitos at night we decided to hang out on the main road, curb side  watching time pass.
The following day, not sure if we were gonna meet the others and push on to the Georgian border, we started slowly driving coastal as much as possible. Randomly, we met British, lone cyclist, Jess at Jason’s Cape. We thought we were kinda crazy, she’s just completely nuts: cycling from London to Singapore!! Solo too! Follow her insane journey at www.full-cycle.org.uk
We got our last bite of lamachun in Trabzon and raced to the border to meet the gang. Hooking up in line, we shared stories as we killed 3-4hrs in a slow moving line. During this time, we watched the sunset on the Black Sea amongst fist fights and A LOT of screaming between cars and buses for those attempting to jump the queue. Over on the Georgian side we celebrated with delicious Georgian beer alongside the locals. Convoying to our guest house at night was challenging, as we had lost our bearings, but in the end it all worked out just fine as we got a house in the hills overlooking Batumi and our first taste of Georgian wine.
Best of the week: Buludza, Corinne scaring kids on the beach for #SharkWeek, Spartakus and all the people we met that night at his restaurant, Istanbul, one of the most unique cities we’ve ever been to and camping outside of Sinop.

#SubaruOfftrax Week Four Highlights

August 14th-20th

It was within hours, that Georgia would become one of our favourite countries visited on this trip. And after spending 6 nights throughout the country it became everyone’s absolute favourite to date. Must have been a perfect mix of the wine, people, variety of landscapes, food and costs that won us all over.
In Batumi, on the Black Sea coast on a ‘day off’ from driving we all went about our own ways, till regrouping at the beach for a swim. That night we quickly discovered the variety of Georgian foods; chef hat dumplings full of different types of meat and white ‘porch pounder’ wine.
The following day, back on the road to the capital city of Tbilisi was longer than expected. OfftraxOutback stopped at a roadside diner where the lovely older woman served the only thing she had in the kitchen which was a spicy stew, fresh crusty bread, hot peppers and a couple of beers, all for under $10
After meeting with the Subaru Motors in Tbilisi for photos and an oil change, we all met up and dined near Freedom Square, sampling more fine Georgian wine.
As the boys were still on the hunt to get the skid plate, us ladies took off up into the mountains.  We first stopped at Makheti, the birthplace of Georgia.  Then we drove up to 2300m where there were ski lifts and upwards to Kazbegi, near the Russian border. We kind of stumbled THE ROOM, a magnificent hotel/casino with views to die for. We went so far to look at a room and were really tempted, but, NO, we wanted to camp. Luckily upon asking about camping on the hotel’s grounds and they said yes for $25.00 for a 10 star camping spot!. We had a 5star lunch on the massive deck overlooking the mountains, lounging, feeling relaxed. After setting up the teepee we sipped our own cocktails in the hotel’s beanbag chairs. That night we checked out the bedroom-like casino, where Corinne won a whopping $20 on roulette.
Woke up to a magnificent sunrise hitting the teepee.  We managed to get a couple of free breakfasts and some excellent coffee at the posh hotel. Took a long detour, aka the backroads to Signaghi, with a stop in Tavali for lunch. En route, a German owned vineyard gave us an awesome tour and we did some sampling and purchased a few bottles of the Saparvi for $6/bottle.  Signaghi is a stone walled town of 2000 and we found rooms at Nato&Lato’s Guest House where we were greeted with homemade Georgian cha cha, a national potent spirit, and traditional folk music. The boys met us there with a skid plate-HURRAY!!!!!
We took the following day off, wandering the small, visiting Pheasant Tears, a local winery where they age their wine in clay cask that are covered in honeycomb and sunk into the ground.  The cat back at our Guest House finally showed us her kittens and so of course we had to go out and buy them some dried fish. We had a roaring game of blackjack where the forms of money were everything from corks to a lighter to random coins to a bottle cap. Andy cleaned house!
 It was tough saying goodbye to Georgia, but also welcoming as we knew Azerbaijan onwards was going to be challenging…first step, getting the cars across the border.
To everyone’s surprise crossing the border only took an hour. The drivers and went separately, while us passengers walked across. Smooth sailing and no issue with the car not being in Corinne’s name, though wearing the Subaru Rally Team Canada shirt doesn’t hurt. We drove to Sheki a very old town in Azerbaijan and we ended up staying at a caravanserai which was over 300 years old with really thick walls, so no AC needed. The street side front door was massive but closed as there was a tiny door that opened up into a massive ancient lobby, then beautiful courtyard. Definitely one of the more unique places we’ve stayed, and at a good price.
300km later, in the capital city of Baku we stayed in the Old City, within the UNESCO walls. That evening Cameron the Marketing Manager at Subaru Baku took us out for an awesome dinner. It started with plates of cheeses, salads, yogurt, chicken, veg, bread, all of this before the roast lamb. First came the minced lamb and then the HUGE racks with tomato and eggplant. Everything was delish, including the three bottles of vodka…
Best of week four: All things Georgian: wine, food, people, variety of landscapes, selection of beers, affordability. Most unexpected country.

 

#SubaruOfftrax Week Five Highlights

August 21
Baku, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan (embassy) & crossing the Caspian Sea
With the Turkmenistan embassy not open till the next day,  we decided to venture out to Qobustan, and look for the elusive mud volcanos. After some random searching, we found a patch of them up on a hill. The landscape was lunar-like, with cold bubbling mud. Very choice and well worth the hunt. The wind was intense, sandblasting us beyond belief.
On our way back we stopped off at the ‘James Bond beach’ with an old oil rig just offshore. To our surprise, locals were actually swimming, as others were lying around the trash laden beach. Elly, the only brave one of us, put her feet in the Caspian Sea, leaving them itchy for awhile.
The next day, back at the embassy at 9am, we were turned away and told to return at 11am. Unsurprisingly, Corinne & Elly went for haircuts in the downtime. Back at the embassy, after some waiting, we were told to go to the bank to pay for our visas. Well this took much longer than expected, which got us back at the embassy just shy of 15min of it closing. Damnit! Now we had to spend the weekend in Baku until Monday when the embassy would reopen. Not good, for scheduling purposes or money, as Baku is pricey.
Time for some more expeditions outside of the city; bring on the Five Finger Mountain, a sacred place that families go to to pray for fertility. GPS led us around the way, through a military zone and across shitty roads for an hour long detour. In addition, a so called ‘policeman’ offered to drive us to the site for $50! Definitely not a real cop…..  Eventually we found the mountain, which looked nothing like ‘five fingers’, more so like a giant rock face. The hike up it was long with many steep steps, but so worth the effort as the views were stunning overlooking the Caspian.
Over the weekend we took it easy, exploring the city, riding the metro, which was old and smoking hot and doing laundry.
On Monday, Michael picked up the Outback, all fixed and ready to go thanks to Cameron and the team at Subaru Azerbaijan. Back at the Turkmenistan embassy for 9am as we were told, we killed time making bets as to when it would open…waited till after 11am for it to open. 11:15am we saw signs of life, though we were told to wait even longer to allow others to go first. Every time the door opened it was a scrabble to push through in hopes of getting inside.
When we finally got in, Noray, the consular staff did each of our visas in a bare bones styled office. By 1230pm we had our visas and rushed to check out of our hotel in hopes of getting on a boat asap. With a fixer’s help and some $ we got summoned to be at the ferry terminal for 6pm, however, getting on the boat was never guaranteed. At the terminal our cars were measured, and papers were gathered. All and all it cost approximately $700 USD per car to cross the Caspian. Ouch!  Now it was a waiting game of going through customs, loading the cargo ship with trains, etc. Over the course of 5-6 hours we waited to board, amusing ourselves in many ways, including flattening coins on the railway track, under the slow moving trains.
Eventually we all fell sleep waiting, till near midnight an official called the passengers (Andy, Elly & Jess) to board. Half asleep we rushed through, not thinking to bring anything with us. By the time we got on board, we weren’t allowed to go back to the cars to get anything, so we were stuck with nothing.
On the ship, we had to hand over our passports to the captain and were shown our cabin- a hot, fly infested mess, though better than expected. We “snuck” out and  scoured the ship to see if we could see the cars boarding.
Finally we watched the cars board and we found a hatch where we snuck down to the cars to gather what we needed on deck. All together now, exhausted, we set up our sleeping area. Not fully realizing or caring at the time, we were located directly under the diesel exhaust and above the engine. At 3am we finally left port and fell asleep to the rumble of the engine beneath us.
By 7am we were wide awake, baking in the sun, still under the exhaust like idiots. We soon got our smarts together and moved everything to the top deck in the shade. The day was spent lounging around the cargo ship, playing games for overpriced, shitty beers the cook sold us, and sneaking in showers from the staff quarters.
We arrived in Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan at 630pm and it was a hot 38 degrees out. Over the course of 4 hours we went through 20 checkpoints and $165 per car to get through the border. Finally when we had paid and all paperwork done, came the car inspection. Officials questioned us as to whether we were carrying any guns, drugs, medicine, rocket missiles AND nuclear bombs! Our faces were priceless needless to say.

#SubaruOfftrax Week Six Highlights

August 27th-Sept 2nd
Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan: two of the hardest countries to get into, but both highlights on our journey
Waking in the port city of Turkmenbashi, after our trip across the Caspian, the first thing we noticed were the look of the local women decked out in beautiful, colourful long dresses, the heat, peaking at 41 degrees, and the cost of gas – 20 cents a litre!!! At prices like that we can afford to get lost. We drove to an underground lake. En route to Ashgabat through many mini sandstorms in the desert Corinne had a huge scare when a transport truck veered out of its lane and headed  straight for her car. Veering to the opposite lane to avoid the truck, the truck suddenly ‘ came to’  and went back to its lane, heading directly for our car. Thankfully Corinne managed to get out of its way and onto the side of the road. Shaken, we all continued onto an underground lake, an hour out of the capital city. Walking down many flights of stairs in the cave we could begin to smell the sulphur instantly.  Surprisingly the water, at 37 degrees and sulphurous was quite refreshing  Afterwards we lounged  aboveground on beautiful silk carpetted platforms sipping local 5 Zip beers & grilled lamb with parsley, basil, onion and bread, all delicious. That night we slept where we ate,  under the stars!
Driving into the capital city of Ashgabat with a so-called population of a million was surreal as there was no one to be seen on the marbled streets. Buildings, shops, fountains and parks were all empty minus the grounds workers keeping everything clean. Outside of the city we found their famed bazaar, which was massive and had everything from clothing to a “home depot” which the boys loved! with not enough time to push onwards, we decided to backtrack a bit and go check out the Iranian border for fun, just 20km away. Not knowing what we’d do, or what to expect, our decision was made when upon arrival it had just closed for the evening. After a lengthy discussion we decided to camp at the border on a dry crispy chunk of land beneath the mountains, probably the homes of cobras and scorpions, underneath a Iranian/Turkmenistan stars.
The following day with time to kill, as we didn’t want to arrive at the Darvaza Gas Crater / Door to Hell too early, we hit up Ashgabat’s largest grocery store, picking up supplies. Then over to the Sofitel Hotel which is now the Oguz where we were introduced to Rasheed, the GM, who was a  true gentleman in the kindest words! He gave us a tour of the gorgeous hotel and the spa was out of this world! The outdoor pool had 2 sections, one “COLD” and the other at outdoor temp which was around 42c. Rasheed had our cooler filled with ice and in exchange we took many photos with the cars outside of the hotel.
Back on the road, heading north we saw lots of camels and even a salty lake in the desert-some oasis! With far and few gas stations around, we topped up as often as possible, including carrying 40 litres of gas in jerry cans as a backup. We heard in Uzbekistan gas is scarce, so might as well have extra and at a good price. Pulling over in the desert village of Yerbent we saw an old antique car with a woman driving. Startled to see us, she veered off the road and into the sand, now stuck. Heidi, as we learned was a 78 year old German lady driving around the world in 2 years in a 1930 Hudson! It was a beautiful car, but not fast, without a/c and the rims of her tiny tires were made of wood! talk about ancient! After a few attempts, we finally got her out of the hot sand.
By 5pm we found the ‘side road’ leading to the gas crater. This was totally “off road”  and Corinne was totally “offtrax”!  The Outback, with Michael driving was lead the way, till Corinne got stuck in the sand. Thankfully we had our TREDS, that acted both as a shovel and a device to get out of the sand. After some help from locals, Andy took over driving the final 5km of sand till the ‘Gates to hell’ appeared. Whoah!!!! This is a HUGE pit full of dancing flames and the heat coming off it came in waves of methane gas – a human mistake 30 years ago and still burning. We set up camp up on a ridge as locals said the air would get hotter and gaseous. Heidi, the German lady arrived later that evening with a guide, complaining the clutch broke as we were pushing her outta the sand….  We partied that night taking many photos and even roasting marshmallows with a 4m metal stick. Definitely a trip highlight.
The wild ride out the next morning back to the main road was another sandy mess, with no stopping, because if you slow down or brake, you’re STUCK!!
Hours later at the Uzbekistan border our bags were thoroughly checked and questioned. All of our medicines came into question as to the reason why we needed each one, especially any with codeine like Tylenol 3 as its illegal. However with our prescriptions and a count of each pill we were allowed through, however it was noted we were carrying narcotics. In addition we had to put a couple of bags through the X-ray machine and Andy’s electric toothbrush, kept coming up. After more questions about it and a demonstration I think they understood what is was.
250km out of our way, we drove to the former fishing village of Moynaq. It was here where the Aral Sea use to be back in the 1970s. Since then, due to irrigation for cotton production, the sea has reduced into two bodies of water, with the South Aral likely to dry up in the coming years. Moynaq is now known for its ship graveyard rather than its fish. Corinne & Jess camped on the hill overlooking the graveyard, where during the night the wind woke them up, feeling like a full offshore storm. Not wanting to camp, the Outback drove to Nukus, where rumours became truth: not only does Uzbekistan have a gas shortage, but they have NO GAS, only black market gas… The gas stations only have natural gas, which most locals cars run on.
In the fairytale-like walled town of Khiva we spent the afternoon exploring and sorting out where to change money and purchase gas (both on the black market, of course!)  Elly got adventurous and dyed her hair with added lightening blots for a whole 8 dollar. Back at our B&B we met up with some of the other travellers we have met in previous locations – the 2 Brits doing a conservation journey, the Japanese  guy who was on a 2 year round the world adventure on his motorcycle and the 2 French boys who were also travelling on their bikes. Over a dinner of sweet rice with garlic an chicken and many beers we exchanged  stories. Stu, from the UK won best story of the night of igniting his hair on fire with sambuca. Youtube it to see what we mean. LOVE IT!
The long, boring drive to Bukhara was met with some ‘excitement’ after a rock flew up from Corinne’s car to hit the Outback’s sunroof, shattering it (later that night Michael taped it up). With it being Independdence Day the small walled city was alive with people.The city itself, with, or without the people was stunning with minarets, blue tiled buildings, tea houses, silks and carpets. We dined outside next to a 2500 year old pool. This was truly a beautiful city with a lot of BLUE!
Samarkand, one of the oldest cities in the world  at 2700 years was quite different and larger than both Khiva and Bukhara.The Registan buildings were massively stunning. However with little time to spare, we didn’t get to see much else of the city. Though we did go on a big hunt for gas the following day leading to nothing in the city and nothing till well outside of the city on the way to Tajikistan.
With the Darvaza’s gas crater’s future unknown (they could extinguish it) it was most def the highlight of the week and on all of our ‘bucket lists’

 

#SubaruOfftrax Week Seven Highlights

September 3rd-8th
Tajikistan: The beauty, injured and Pamirs
Not like waking up in in big city with a big driving day ahead of us and no gas to be found whatsoever! We finally gave up and headed towards our destination, the Tajikistan border, in hopes we’d find some roadside.The key to finding it, for those that don’t know, is a single water bottle with gas in it. What’s unknown, is the price quality or quantity one may or may not get. Luckily, we found a house with tons of gas, so much as both cars got filled up.
A combo of GPS and construction ridden road detours led us to a dead end where many people were gathered. We were approached by some rowdy men, one who even tried to open the car door – time to get out of here! Exiting Uzbekistan was another ordeal with their officials demanding that our bags be put through the X-ray machines along with more questions about drugs, bombs and guns. Finally into “no-man’s” land and Tajik border control was temporarily closed as they were eating dinner. While waiting Jess tripped over a tow rope between two cars and really wiped out- flat on her face, actually elbow. She nearly fainted  cause of the pain (and likely exhaustion), however she looked okay minus a few scraps, though complained about her left elbow and not being able to straighten it…..  Getting across the border into Tajikistan was a breeze, after they had their dinner of course! On the other side we were met with an ultramodern gas station that actually had gas, and good gas and beers! A celebration was had by all, at the gas station. in the capital city of Dushanbe we went straight to the Hyatt for ice (cocktails & Jess’s arm) & wifi, and soon enough a room, hell we deserve it, plus it was pushing midnight. Jess and Corinne left to go find a cheaper place, but soon returned as all the other places were either overpriced dumps or wanted the same amount as the Hyatt.
The next morning Jess was in massive pain and started popping the Tylenol 3’s. (Good thing Uzbekistan didn’t get a hold of them!) She knew she had to go to the hospital, so Elly & Corinne took her. With minimal signage, a maze of low rise buildings and some improv on Elly’s behalf, the traumatology dept was soon found and without any papers filled in she managed to get a doctor to prescribe an X-ray. The X-ray room was ancient with crumbling walls and the equipment looked like it was from the USSR days. There were some new pieces of equipment still wrapped in plastic on the floor, however. As feared, the X-ray came back with a fractured ulna bone and would have to be put in a cast for 3 weeks! The doctor who was looking after Jess was an orthopaedic surgeon and also a teacher of orthopaedics. We went into her classroom where she invited a few of her students to observe the casting procedure, kinda like a Tajik version of Grey’s Anatomy. Walking along the clogged corridors towards the casting room we came across a young man who looked like he had 2 bullet wounds in his chest…   Jess came really close to passing out while getting the cast put on. She had the interns holding her arm in place, raising her legs while the nurse threw a handful of water at Jess’ face which worked to bring her back!  Overall the cost for the whole procedure including calcium which Jess will have to take for three weeks was $65.00 CDN.
Back on the road, we headed towards the Pamir Highway stopping in the city of Kulob. The first hotel we looked at was right out of a Soviet horror movie, but the rooms were massive… A local led us to another hotel which was a tad better, but once i started barfing and Andy with the shits, sharing a bathroom with no water or power was the worst! Speaking of water, upon arrival there was no water at the hotel as Jess found out trying the complicated shower. Unbeknownst to her she had left the taps open…. Later that evening it became well known that their room in the hotel had flooded and water was coming down through the ceiling into the restaurant below! Opps! Guess thats what happens when complicated showers, with way too many knobs get installed in hotel rooms!
The next morning with Elly & Andy still shaky, we faced the much feared, yet exciting, Pamir Highway. To drive in this area of Tajikistan we had to each get an extra permit, which was checked throughout the day by police, all examining it very carefully. To actually drive this “highway on top of the world” was unbelievable! It was everything I read and MORE. Looking down off the cliffs you could see the river that divided Afghanistan & Tajikistan. You could basically throw a rock into Afghanistan! what a feeling to be so close to such a war torn, yet beautiful country. Driving on carved out, sometimes paved, but mostly rocky roads with car-swallowing potholes, while hanging onto the side of a cliff was both exhilarating and terrifying. Throughout, we were always making room for oncoming big transport trucks, where at times we were within inches to falling off the side of the road….
Later in the afternoon, while trying to push to our destination of Khorog, Corinne & Jess blew a tire while the Outback was well ahead. Luckily an NGO, AKDN.org stopped and changed the tire for them all the while discovering that their spare tire was a “temporary” spare, meaning it wouldn’t last long!
The better part of the next day was spent looking for a new tire for the XV, again with the assistance of Mirzo from AKDN. After much discussion and weighing out options it was agreed upon that the damaged tire would get patched and an inner tube was put into it for extra prevention. We’d have to wait till we got to Kyrgyzstan and hope to hell the roads improved.
With only a few of hours daylight driving left, we made it to the small village of  Jolandi, up in the mountains. With no stores, let alone hotels (as expected) we found a “home stay” with a couple and their 10yr old daughter. They had a few cows and she baked bread for the village – their home smelled divine. Jess & Corinne set up their tent in the yard, while Michael, Andy and Elly stayed in one of their rooms which the lady set up beautifully on the floor with poofy cushions and beautiful linens. Dinner consisted of a rice pudding & fresh bread.  At 3700 meters some of us were feeling the effects of the altitude & getting “breathy”. Even digestion was very slow so going to bed on a full belly was not good. The temperature dropped to 5c but we all slept really well.
Breakfast was homemade kefir yogurt – with a bit of sugar & hot, fresh bread!  As is the custom, we left $5 each under the tablecloth for our bed and food and were on our way. Such a unique, worthy experience. Up the way, was a local hot spring, that we decided to take advantage of. There was no one else there.  Male and females were separated, so we went skinny dipping in the HOT semi-sulphurous water. Luxury! Back on the Pamir the landscape was spotted with gers/yurts. Numerous red, furry, bushy tailed,  groundhog-looking animals were all over the grasslands, ducking in and out of holes.
Arriving in the largest town in the mountains, Murgab, we looked for tires again with no luck. Not knowing how much further it would take for us to cross the next few mountain passes, we decided to get a room at the only hotel and chill a bit. For dinner we ate a kebob which we were told was duck…like there are ducks at over 3800m?!?!  We believe it must have been one of those red, furry animals we had been spotting all day.
Waking to a chilly -2c, we knew it was time to change from flip-flops to shoes.  We hit a 4600m pass en route to the beautifully blue, Lake Kara-Kol – the highest saltwater lake in the world. At 380 sq km with a maximum depth of 238m the only kind of fish living in the lake is Noemachilus-locusnigri which has zero product value. Unfortunately, we were a week too early to witness the Roof of the World regatta.…but there were certainly no signs of it happening, or any boat activity. For many kilometres we drove alongside the Chinese border, even stopping to cross the barbwire fence for photo opps.
Exiting Tajikistan and into “no mans land” seemed to last forever till we reached the Kyrgyzstan border. Which again was quick and painless. Could be all the the Canadian cigarettes and Cdn flag pins we gave them!
Herds and herds and more herds of sheep, goats, horses and cows slowed us down (“lamb-jams”, as we would call them) but gave us opportunity for some great pics and good laughs! We arrived in the large city of Osh with time to spare. Altitude went down to a 1000m and temperature up to 26c.
Tajikistan was definitely a trip highlight. The people and sheer beauty of the varying landscapes wowed us. Driving the Pamir Highway also helped, as it was all on our ‘lists’.

#SubaruOfftrax Week Eight Highlights

September 9th- 17th Kazakhstan & Russia part one
In Osh Michael and Corinne managed to find a new tire for the XV for a mere $30. On our way out of the city we stopped by the giant three story ger / yurt then to the bazaar. In the food area we stumbled across what appeared to be something white in the shape of a lung. What a weird texture-slimey and almost gelatinous-like. Turns out it was cow lung cooked in some bazaar way. We sampled horse sausage just to cut the lung taste.
Back on the road we headed North, along decent roads through minor mountain passes and past rivers and reservoirs. By sunset we settled on a lake enjoying the local fish.
The next morning Corinne had to pull over as the car was oddly shaking back and forth. Roadside at a tire specialist the patched tire, ready to blow, got exchanged for the new cheapy tire. En route we spotted many ma & pa shops advertising horse meat for sale… The Outback  was stopped by the cops for not having our headlights on.  We offered them “smokes” and sunglasses to no avail. They wanted $100 USD. We gave them $30 and called it a day. No sooner later, Corinne got busted and chased down for going through a stop sign. Luckily they got outta that one scott free. Further on, the Outback was pulled over again and told not to use the left lane when passing through a police check as they cannot see you!!!
The Kyrgyzstan / Kazakhstan border took a painless two hours. Onto Almaty, GPS took us to the wrong end of the city and not to the hostel. An hour later we found the correct location and were ‘treated’ with dorm rooms with no one else in them. Now which of the eight beds does one sleep in?
On our day off we all went in our separate ways discovering the former capital of Kazakhstan, of which is now Astana. Almaty lies at the foot of the Tien Shan Mountains and means, ‘apple’. The next morning we visited the Almaty Subaru dealership. WOW, what a great group of people. We were treated to a smorgasbord of breakfast treats, including Kazak chocolate while the cars got oil changes, etc. We learned the director of the dealership, Murat moonlighted as a movie star! Lunch with some media folks was at a highend Uzbek restaurant with a huge spread of salads, horse meats, different fish, cheeses and warm breads! We dug right in sampling everything. To our surprise this was just the beginning of what was to come. Stuffed, but not to be rude, we continued on with  were massive bowls of soup with huge samsas filled with lamb which we were supposed to dip into soup. OMG! we were all bursting at the seams when two enormous platters arrived with 2 different plovs (rice dishes, Uzbekistan’s national dish) one white and sweet, one brown and more savoury, both with meat in them. We could hardly move!!! To top it off was dessert of chak chak (honey and nuts). Waddling out of the restaurant for photos then back to the Subaru dealership for more photos. From there some of their team took us up to the mountains for more photos and to seed their famous skating rink. We soon learned that they wanted to take us out for dinner now. Still stuffed from lunch, how do you say no? Another high end place too! Unfortunately most of us were stuffed and couldn’t appreciate the exciting Kazakh menu and stuck with salads. However, Andy and Michael pulled through enjoying horse ribs and beshbarmak – a local dish of boiled horse meat and mutton that you eat with a thin dough that is cooked in broth and eaten with your hands. Very choice day overall and quite something to learn so much about Kazakhstan from a great group of people.
After getting officially registered in the country, which is apparently mandatory, we packed up and parted ways with Hostel 74/76, Natalia, Anton and the adorable kitty. Next stop: Semey, in Northern Kazakhstan was a lengthy 1200km drive that we broke up in two very long long days. We camped in a ravine in the mountains somewhere enroute.
After another long day driving we arrived in the former nuclear testing town of Semey. To our surprise there was a good pizza joint in town, that we enjoyed immensely after overdosing on Kazakh food. The following day, while waiting for our Russian visa to kick in we bummed around the city checking out a park full of Lenin statues and busts. Knowing Russia isn’t exactly known for their food, we treated ourselves on pizza again.
At 6:15am we were all on the road, heading  towards the Russian border, 150km away. To our surprise the roads were good and the crossing was a breeze. To add to this gas was just a $1/litre for the good stuff! We lunched on borscht and rye bread in the big city of Barnaul then onto to Biysk for the night. Searching for a decent, yet cheap place to stay we came across some real beauties including on that we had to drive on a nasty puddled ridden road to reach rundown apartment looking building that upon going inside reeked of shit and barf. To add to the nasty, there was any sign of the place being a hotel or anything like that. This was just what Andy’s GPS was saying. With no more options, we returned to one of the previous places we had looked into and booked in…it was then we were told that the hotel would have to keep our passports till 3pm the next day in order to register us in the country (another Russian bureaucracy). It was either stay with her and waste half a day of driving or camp and not register. We gave in due to the late hour and stuccoed up the registration bit.
We were all surprised when at noon the next day our passports were returned, fully registered. Not knowing if we’d make it to the Mongolian border today, we did the best we could, but were soon overtaken by the beauty of our surroundings in the Altai Mountains. Driving alongside a river with  so many cows, horses and sheep that were all very big so they could survive the brutal winters was gorgeous. We found a beautiful campsite with tiny cabins on a roaring river earlier in the day than we would have liked, but decided to stay and enjoy the outdoors and river. Mongolia would have to wait another day….
And for those wondering (I was…) nobody looks like nor talks like Borat that we have come across. Everyone acknowledges him and the amount of tourism he has since brought by putting Kazakhstan on the map, but that’s it.