The first half of the day saw us cruising at good speed towards Altai in south-western Mongolia. The corrugations in the dirt tracks (small bumps) were okay and when you drive at a certain speed you almost can’t feel them. This means that sometimes it is better to drive faster on the dirt tracks to avoid the bumpy feeling but on the other hand you are more at risk if there is a hole or a big stone in the middle of the road.
The biggest event this day happened early in the afternoon when the rear axle on our car snapped. We went over a bump and heard a loud cracking noise and immediately Christian turned pale and started swearing “Oh shit! Fuck”. We were still 50 km from Altai and a proper repair shop and our left back wheel was hanging loose.
Driving in Russia feels almost like home, the asphalt is smooth with almost no potholes, there are white markings and respectable speed limits. Of course the local drivers are maniacs doing crazy overtakes and you see your life flash before your eyes a few times a day, but still it is quite good. To drive from Kazakhstan to Mongolia you have to first drive north-east for 300 km before you can turn south as there is no direct route. Basically we drove in “the wrong” direction for half the day before the road turned south and we reached a city called Biysk.
Russian is a common secondary language for all the Central Asian countries and it is widely spoken while almost none speaks English. This makes communication harder than in Europe and using hand signs, drawings and so on is often needed when communicating with locals. However, the first Russian word you learn as a foreigner is “nyet” – meaning no!
We felt slightly better in our stomachs when we left our lovely luxury hotel in Osh. The day before we had noticed our front wheels had worn down a lot quite quickly, which according to the Chief Mechanic Christian was an alignment issue with the wheels. We went around in Osh for a while asking locals if they knew of a shop that had the proper equipment to fix this issue and after a while we managed to find a decent place. The equipment to measure the alignment is usually quite expensive, think hundreds of thousand kroners, but all seemed okay. We also had a flat on a tire which was fixed and the best thing is that we only had to hand out 50 kroner for all of it.
Our main purpose driving into Tajikistan was to get on the famous Pamir Highway. In terms of altitude it is the second highest international highway in the world, reaching as far as 4.655 meters at one point. Some parts run along the border to Afghanistan, other parts in the remote eastern part of Tajikistan. The road is terrible at many places due to erosion, earthquakes, landslides and avalanches. In short it is not suited in any way for a small car like the Nissan Micra. You also need a special permit to enter the whole region due to instability as the population there would like to form their own nation.
The last of the three silk road cities in Uzbekistan is Samarkand, which is 275 km to the south Bukhara. We drove the entire afternoon to get there, as usual the heat was intense and the roads mostly bad. We found a hotel in the middle of the Jewish quarter, which took our car down a few very small alleys not really made for cars to be honest.
Later we saw Samarkand and got up into a minaret tower by bribing a guard 3 dollars per person – awesome! Technically that was our first bribe while on the road. As often before we ended the day with a few cold beers.
The whole convoy of 5 vehicles drove further north from the Derweze gas crater, but the road turned out to be exceptionally bad. It took us roughly 8 hours to drive 300 km in 45 degrees heat. The goal was to reach the Turkmenistan – Uzbekistan border in the north before it closed and we barely made it.
As mentioned earlier we decided not to drive to Isfahan after our Tehran adventure as we didn’t have time. A shame but that’s the way the Mongol Rally works, we are under severe time pressure and our car is not all that good. Instead we drove to the Caspian Sea and had a scenic drive through the more green parts of the country. We found a hotel in Gorgan within a days driving distance from the border to Turkmenistan.
At our Hotel in Doğubayazıt we met a group of French people who were going to visit the nearby Ishak Pasha Palace in the morning. It sounded very interesting and since we had enough time for a small detour, we went to see it as well. When driving up the hill to the Palace we suddenly saw a big smoke cloud moving fast towards us. It turned out to be a truck loaded with hay, only there was a big fire in the hay!! It came racing down towards us like a firebomb but we avoided it be turning in at a small side road. Insane!