How it all started…
Thanks to the MGCC Hunter magazine I became aware of a plan to run a team of MGs from Nanjing in China to Abingdon and Longbridge. Dave Godwin, the organiser who runs a Classic Car Clinic on the Golden Coast had six crews all confirmed who were making final arrangements for a departure in mid-April 2010 and arrival at the destination in mid-July, when one of the crews dropped out. A brief flurry of phone calls and emails and we are on the reserve list!
We learn that Dave is not only an MGA racer but also experienced in long distance events. His road MGA registered RIP – Retire in Peace – has previously circumnavigated Australia and Europe and also successfully completed a trip from Cape Town to the equator in Kenya. The purpose of this trip is to drive a team of 6 cars from MG China to MG UK. From the newest MG China Plant in Nanhui to Longbridge via the ancestral home in Abingdon.
3 December 2009
Dave Godwin phones to tell me that Simon Boadle, one of the confirmed entrants is looking for someone to team up with. A few days later Lorraine and I meet Simon and I Madelaine and agree on a deal! We will share the cost of buying and preparing an MGB ready for Simon and Madelaine to drive the first leg through China before she returns to Australia. I will then join Simon for the ‘Stans’ leg through to Istanbul where Simon flys out and Lorraine flys in to complete the final leg through to Abingdon and Longbridge. Nearly 22,000 km over 94 days so a fairly relaxed pace with plenty of rest and sightseeing days. One of the biggest attractions for me is the thought of driving along the ancient Silk Road from Xian to Istanbul
The car preparation…
10 December 2009
We are now (almost) the owners of a pretty reasonable MGB GT which seemed like the most practical option wearing an octagon badge – the event is limited to MGA and MGB models, so a TC was out of the question. We pick it up on Saturday and trailer it to PK Autos in Somerville close to Simon’s place. PK is run by Peter Garrett who has owned a string of MGs and presently runs an MGB club racer so he knows the marque. We have a long list of checks and repairs to be carried out to make it as reliable and comfortable as possible for the long drive. I’ve located a set of MX5 seats in black trim that won’t look too out of place and reportedly they fit very easily. The originals looked OK, but the cushions and seat back felt pretty tired and a full re-trim wasn’t going to be cheap. Lots to do but very exciting. Apparently the event is raising a lot of interest in the UK. They are expecting about 100 cars to join us for a convoy from Portsmouth to Longbridge – sounds like something Jeremy Clarkson could have fun with.
18 December 09
The MGB is now roadworthy, or at least it has a certificate to say it is, and came down from the hoist briefly to be photographed from all angles with its CH2LON number plates so all the documentation could be sent off to the Chinese authorities. The only serious problems were a seriously leaky brake master cylinder and a broken rear spring, but both were on the list to be replaced anyway. The major dilemma now is who to trust on the subject of running on unleaded fuel. Some say just leave the standard head, but others say we need new exhaust valves, seats and valve guides. More research will be needed on this one. I think we’re on top of distributor modifications for modern fuels so a re-mapped distributor curve will do the trick there. The list of overhauls and modifications is about 3 pages long and I’m happy to share it with anyone who might be interested. The MGCC of Queensland website Gavin Fry put me on to has been most helpful and I also located a book entitled Maintaining an MGB in the 21st Century – Barrie’s Notes. Barrie is a serious MG tragic from the UK, and his suggestions have been very helpful.
The best thing is that Lorraine has fallen in love with the car and wants to use as personal transport if it makes it back to Oz in one piece. It’s pretty well a dead-ringer for Graham Edney’s original car [See ‘On the Marque’ January 2009, P29-31 – Ed. ] except for the V8 spec wheels which are not much better looking than the RoStyles, but they are wider and tougher and will do the job.
Christmas is now almost on us with lots of family distractions, but April is looming fast and there’s a lot to do if we’re going to make the shipping deadline.
2 January 2010
Over the Christmas break the reality of the challenge ahead started to sink in. The car was still stuck on the garage hoist at PK Autos while everyone went off for three weeks well-earned break. Funny thing about Christmas breaks – everyone must pull the covers off their classic cars and decide to spend their bonuses on stuff to make them go faster or whatever. Every garage in Melbourne has a long queue of enthusiasts wanting work done and I’ve just realised that our car needs to be completed by the end of Feburary to make the sailing date to China. The four page list of work to be done suddenly starts to look a bit of a worry! Shouldn’t be a problem, we’ve been promised the car by 12 Jan with all new brakes and new rear springs raised 20 mm.
Pick up the car and head towards Mornington where the next batch of work was to be done. 5 kms down the road and the car is not feeling good. The front calipers are not releasing and on slowing down the smell of hot brakes is accompanied by a cloud of smoke. Back to the garage where another day later the diagnosis is a faulty master cylinder. Apparently it isn’t uncommon for the relief hole drilling to be slightly out of place in a re-sleeved master cylinder so the calipers remain pressurised.
Sit by the phone waiting for the call to pick up the car so it can be tested over the weekend. 3:00 pm and I’m on the phone to the courier who picked up the parts first thing in the morning. Still out on his rounds. 4:45 pm and the parts are at the garage just as the doors are closed for the weekend. Damn!
The car is ready and all is well. I had planned to take the car to MG Workshops to rebuild the cylinder head to unleaded spec today but a few more phone calls have convinced me that regular dosing with Valvemaster along with the occasional dose of octane booster for dodgy fuel is the way to go. It did seem a pity to tear down an engine which is running perfectly so fingers crossed. Took the original Lucas 25D4 ignition distributor to Performance Ignition Services where Dick O’Keefe confirmed that the mapping was close but the bearings were very worn leading to erratic points gap. Took his advice to go for a new Bosch distributor with appropriate advance mapping.
Meanwhile there is much activity amongst the team members to arrange visas, international driving licence, insurance, medicals etc. Visas are a challenge for several of the ‘stans because they have no representation in Australia. Visas for Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for example can only be obtained in the UK or Singapore unless one is prepared to take the chance of getting a visa before leaving China. Fortunately someone knows someone who will be in Singapore at the right time and can shuttle the passports and visa applications between consulates so the process can be accelerated somewhat. Apparently when your economy is bouyed by massive exports of oil and gas, there is little need to pander to the occasional motorist who wants to tour through your country.
Six weeks before the car is shipped and we’ve only accumulated about 10km. Going to have to do better than this!
The new distributor is fitted so it’s time to start accumulating some running time. First stop is at Tyrepower in Hastings to fit a set of Falken R51 light truck tyres. The advice from a good contact in the tyre business was that light truck tyres have the sidewall strength to withstand just about any pothole and can be run at pressures as low as 30 psi to achieve ride comfort close to a standard tyre. Sounds good to me and the bonus is that the rolling dia of a 175R14 is exactly the same as the original MGB 5.60×14” tyre spec. Plenty of ground clearance and the speedo reads correctly.
50 km later, back into Melbourne traffic and my foot is sliding off the clutch pedal. It seems very damp down there. Stop to check it out and find that half of the clutch master cylinder contents are now spread over the footwell (what an appropriate name) – and my shoes! No-one has an easy answer to that one so a rag wrapped around the cap catches most of the spill for the drive home.
Liberal doses of degreasing fluid have revealed an underbody and mechanicals to be proud of. The good news after nearly 400 miles is that the car is remarkably oil tight. A weep from a side cover gasket and a little from the overdrive unit is about it – no sign of the suspected rear main leak from our first inspection. The other good news is no pinging even on regular unleaded. All the usual torture tests such as full throttle up hill at 1800 rpm are clean – the new ignition timing is perfect.
Now its back to the garage to fit all the parts which should save us when the going gets tough. An electric fan, new starter, 12 volt battery, coolant recovery system, new coolant hoses, new fuel hoses, the list goes on. Just two weeks to go before the car is driven into a container to be shipped to China and the preparation continues. Last month we were doused in hydraulic fluid from a faulty clutch master cylinder and still to fit all the components which would help us survive in the congested traffic anticipated in Chinese cities. Around 12 million cars were built in China in 2009, more than the US, and we’re betting they won’t all be parked for our visit.
Pick up the car from PK Autos where Peter Garrett has fitted the electric fan, a coolant recovery system, new starter and ignition distributor along with new fuel, coolant and oil hoses. Peter finally traced the hydraulic problem to a missing baffle at the bottom of the master cylinder. Every time the clutch was operated a jet of fluid forced its way through the 2 tiny holes in the under the relief hole in the cap. Insidious stuff and doesn’t do much for the paint work … or the driver’s shoes!
Now we can start putting some serious miles on the car – good to be able to say ‘miles’ and not feel a pang of guilt that one should really be saying kilometres to avoid showing one’s age.
Time to check the tuning, starting with the carburetors. I had already noticed that the piston on the rear carb wasn’t hitting the bridge nicely so at least I knew the jets needed centering. I wasn’t expecting however, to find needles which had started life as the correct no. 5s but were now heavily filed over their entire lengths. Now I know why the exhaust sounds a little rich! Hmm…where to go from here. My trust in the MG engineers who originally developed the car leads me to revert to the original spec. and finding that 1970 MGBs onward had slightly leaner FX needles this is where I start. Lean equals excellent fuel consumption, right? Unfortunately not in this car, it is almost undriveable due to hesitation everytime the throttle is opened from 2000-2500 rpm. Decide to ring Dick O’Keefe at Performance Ignition Services who had set up the distributor advance curves for the 91 octane or worse fuel we are expecting to see if this might be aggravating the problem. Dick is an MG man from way back and suggested carefully modifying the new needles using wet and dry abrasive paper with the needles mounted in an electric drill. Two hours and a few trial runs later I had a pair of needles which were within a few tenths of the MGB no. 6 ‘rich’ needle in the mid-range but unchanged at the upper end. Perfect driveability!
9 February 27
Now for the comfort and safety stuff. A friend had a spare pair of MX5 seats in black cloth so a deal was struck and we’re off to Sparke Engineering in Keilor East to have them fitted. Some readers may have heard of Laurie Sparke who also worked at Holden until a year or so ago and earned the title of ‘Mr Safety’. Laurie was the man who is credited with the introduction of airbags in Commodore. Behind the scenes he forged a strong relationship between Holden and the Monash University Accident Research Centre which exists to this day. This lead to the formation of an extensive database of accidents involving Commodores which allowed Holden to tailor the vehicle structure and restraint systems to work more effectively in ‘real-world’ accidents. Laurie was awarded a doctorate several years ago for his work in this field. These days he runs Sparke Engineering, specializing in conversions and certification of imported and modified vehicles. Two weeks later and thanks to Laurie’s top fabrication man, Andrew Bennett, we have an MGB with comfortable seats, retractor belts, tie down hooks for the luggage and the spare battery box converted to carry vital fluids – for the car. We also have a drink cooler for our vital fluids given that temperatures in Iran and Turkey are likely to reach 40 deg C and we still haven’t worked out how to turn the A/C on.
Tomorrow is the big test. My co-driver Simon is meeting me in Lilydale at the crack of dawn for a shake-down run to Mt Bulla via the Black Spur and returning down the Reefton Spur Road. These are the roads Victorian drivers enjoy when they can’t make it to Tasmania or the Putty Road.
Meet Simon Boadle, in the car park at Maccas and resist the temptation to dive into their breakfast offer. Wasn’t really that hard! As I have been handling most of the car preparation, this was Simon’s first real chance to experience the car. His first response was that the car felt really good compared with his MGA. Lighter steering, much nicer over bumps and the MX5 seats were streets ahead in comfort for anyone with a 60 y.o. back.
Fabulous weather and a bit disappointing that this was a GT – just the sort of day to enjoy an open car but we reminded ourselves that this was supposed to be work. We were there to find the problems which might spoil the day somewhere in the far-flung corners of Kyrgyzstan.
We didn’t exactly set a record for the climb up Buller but nobody passed us on the way up or the way down which we decided was a pretty reasonable result for a 40 y.o. car on light truck tyres and not too many ponies. In fact nobody passed us for the entire trip and the car behaved perfectly. Simon wanted to carry our a few maintenance projects on the family ski lodge so we ended up running ourselves a bit short of time for the planned return down the Reefton Spur Road. The default route down the Black Spur is always a bit of a lottery and we struck an enthusiastic Jeep Wrangler driver who obviously didn’t understand the purpose of the passing lanes so with gritted teeth we wound our way down the hill and pretended to enjoy the magnificent vista of tree ferns.
The only real concern was the level of engine noise and the heat in the passenger’s footwell. One thin layer of carpet directly over the floor and transmission tunnel is a bit skimpy and trying to recall my original MGB, a little short of the original factory spec. insulation.
After lots of enquiries about good insulating materials I finally came across a place in Knox which specialized in noise and heat insulating materials for cars. Their biggest customers are the ‘doof-doof’ boys who want to get the best out of their million watt sound systems so while we weren’t exactly target customers, they did have the goods we needed. A few hundred dollars later and we had sheets of aluminium backed self adhesive panels of a bitumen based product from the US which was ideal for lining the footwells and those bits of the firewall that I could get to without pulling out all the wiring. Similar stuff but with a thick noise insulating layer to line the bonnet and a roll of underfelt to insulate under all the carpets. I wouldn’t pretend that we achieved a result to rival a Lexus but that wasn’t the aim. We did end up with noise levels which aren’t going to require copious Panadols at the end of each day and the risk of serious burns are significantly reduced.
Simon is hosting a bbq for us to meet a few of his friends who experienced the Silk Road some years ago on an organized tour. The three take-outs for me were that the people they met in the ‘stans were very friendly, the food was a bit of a mixed bag and the toilets were to be avoided if at all possible. Oh, and the weather in Urumqui where I will join the trip was so cold that everyone was shivering with seven layers of clothing. And this was at the beginning of May, about two weeks ahead of our schedule. Hmm, might have to review the plan to survive with three tee-shirts and two pairs of pants just like the guys who drove the Hillman Hunter around the globe some years ago and lived to tell the tale.
Simon delivers the car to the freight company who will tie down the car along with the three others from Melbourne in a pair of 40 foot containers ready to depart on the 17th. All very low key and everything goes to plan. That is until the ship arrives in Brisbane where it is to pick up the other container with the Gold Coast cars. The day after the ship sails, Dave Godwin and Ian Besley get word that the container with their cars was left on the dock because someone decided the ship might be unstable with the last container on board. Some unprintable language is heard … The following weeks are filled with emails back and forth trying to tie down the new shipping date and what this means to the very tight schedule which was to allow the cars to be cleared through customs, driven to Beijing for the “Peking to Paris” part of the event and then back to the new MG factory for the official departure ceremony.
Finally get word that the two cars have left Brisbane. There are now a set of plans with multiple back-ups to manage the start of the trip depending on how quickly the cars can be cleared from customs. Lots of nail-biting and the dread of 900 km plus days to catch up the schedule on unfamiliar roads. Let’s just hope the ship’s captain has the right maps to get our cars safely past the Barrier Reef and on to China!
Time for Ian to join the trip
15 May Urumqui, China
My first day in China and after an unscheduled 6 hour delay in Guangzhou I finally arrive in Urumqi around 11:00 pm. Our Chinese guide, Queenie and driver, Mr Lui kindly pick me up in the support Toyota Prado and drive me to our 5 star hotel, the best so far on the China leg according to the others. There is marble everywhere and I’m impressed – certainly not the hardship I had been expecting. The only complaint was the rock hard bed but this seems to be typical of Chinese hotels. This hotel turned out to be the last with working internet. We are now in Xinxiang province, the home of the Uyghur People and only a few hundred kms from the border so the Chinese authorities have a double sensitivity about internet access.
Despite all the earlier attempts to get a visa for Kazakhstan through the consulates in Singapore and London I am still without one. Everyone else went through the pain of getting theirs in Beijing but I have struck a deal with our guide who is confident of her contacts in Urumqi. The arrangement is that she will deliver my passport first thing next morning to her contact who will then hang around in Urumqi for the three day processing period before speeding to meet me just before the scheduled border crossing.
16 May Jinghe, China
Meet the rest the others at breakfast. Everyone seems in good spirits. First stop for the day is at the local MG Dealer where they have arranged a reception for us coinciding with a dealer promotion “special deals for 2nd car”. Everyone is there including the police chief and we and our cars get a great reception. Lots of photos and interviews for the local press and TV. The locals crawled all over the cars and one guy was even checking all the numbers on our car to see if they matched. Simon had put a sticker on the bonnet translating the history of MG and our car in Mandarin and this got a lot of attention everywhere we went. Amazing to consider the size of this dealership in one of the more remote cities in north west China but everything is bustling and they sold 1000 cars last year.
On the road by 3:00 pm after navigating our way out of this city of 3 million people and onto the excellent tollway heading west. Dave suggested we travel a little further than planned to give more time the following day in case of any problems at the border.
The stop that night in Jinghe was in a very basic hotel but we made up for it by finding a street cafe where we feasted on shasliks, noodles and spicy vegetables and a beer each. The total bill for the three of us was 9 Yuan or 50 cents each.
17 May Khorgas, China – Kazakhstan border
On the road by 10:00 am. No-one starts early in the western provinces because this is Beijing time and the solar time is 2-3 hours later so shops tend to be open from 10:00 am to 11.00 pm and the streets are still busy until after midnight.
After 100 km or so the road which has been following a huge valley with snow-capped peaks to the south starts ascending. Over the next 30 km we ascend from around 300 m to over 2100 m. Here we find a beautiful mountain lake about 100 km in circumference. A resort is being built but so far the only working structure is an entrance gate where we pay 40 Yuan to drive around the lake. Tall snow-capped peaks on three sides of the lake and crystal clear water. Very European feel but surprisingly for China, a complete absence of people.
Back on the tollway which suddenly disappears and we find the start of the roadworks. We are driving on a bone-shattering rocky track dodging the trucks and buses as they weave around trying to dodge the worst of the bumps. This was the start of the 90 km of “uncertain road surface” we had been warned about. Towards the top of the next peak we could see the construction of the new road which will tunnel through the mountain and cross the valleys on huge suspension bridges. The roadworks continued for an hour or so as in typical Chinese fashion everything is being worked on simultaneously so one day soon you will drive along this road and it will be completed from beginning to end. By the time we are completely over the bumps, the mud and the dust, the highway suddenly reappears and we have a smooth drive into the border town of Khorgas. We had all been expecting a fairly basic town based on guide book descriptions and the size of the dot on the map but this was another large city and luckily, a few banks with ATMs so I could withdraw cash to pay for the Kazakhstan visa.
18 May Khorgas, China – Kazakhstan border
This is a rest day and we are planning to drive south east back towards Yining, the capital of the province and home of Taoism. We make a fuel stop at the half way point and someone notices that Dave’s car is dropping a lot of oil. It had used around 4 litres over the 5,000 km since Beijing but this looked serious. We found a roadside repair shop with a pit where Dave’s mechanic, Dan, could look under the car to try to diagnose the problem. The oil was definitely coming from the clutch housing but Dan couldn’t be sure whether it was engine or gearbox oil so the decision was made to return to Khorgas to find a repair shop. Back at Khorgas and Queenie located a repair shop specialising in engine repairs only 1 km from the hotel. Dave and Dan set about pulling out the engine with help from Reg and me. Not an easy job in an MGA which has been fitted with a Sierra gearbox. The Chinese boss wasn’t all that happy about having amateurs doing his work so when the engine was out he stepped in to help with the diagnosis. He clearly wasn’t happy with Dan’s diagnosis and convinced Dave that the problem was a leaky gearbox front gasket. With new gaskets cut from sheet and the old seal refitted, the engine was ready to go back in. It was around 9:00 pm and the sun was getting low so a deal was struck for the Chinese mechanics to complete the installation that evening to get the car ready to go in the morning. By 11:00 pm the engine was fired up and everything looked fine initially but a few minutes later oil was trickling out from the clutch housing again. This time the diagnosis is a leaking engine rear main seal. Time to call it quits for the day.
19 May Shonzi, Kazakhstan
There is a knock on the door and Simon is asking where our spare rear main seal was packed because Dave can’t find either of the 2 seals he thought he had brought. I can’t find our seal either, it must have been inadvertently left at home in Melbourne. Back to the repair shop where they already have the engine out again and are looking for a local replacement seal. They have one which is slightly smaller so the decision is taken to fit it in the hope that Dave can limp on to Bishkek or Tashkent where the correct seal can be shipped in and fitted.
It is now just after noon and we need to be moving in the next hour or so to make the border crossing in time. If all goes well, Dave will get back to the hotel by 1:30 pm. If not, a backup plan is in place to truck the car through the border and on to Bishkek. Just after 1:30 pm the MGA arrives back and everyone is smiling. No leaks…..for now anyway.
My passport is delivered back with the prized Kazakhstan visa and I hand over the agreed 2700 RMB or about $450 – just $20 for the visa and the remainder for “handling costs”.
The border crossing re-opens at 3:00 pm and Queenie assures us there is no rush, she has everything organised. Sure enough when we arrive there is a short wait and we are then directed past the long line of trucks to park at the front of queue. Another short wait and the passports are returned by the official who has been looking after us. Photos of the officials with the cars, us with the cars and then everyone together with smiles all round. “Hope we see you again” from one of the officials. Into the cars again and after crossing the 2 km of “no-man’s land” we arrive at the Kazakhstan border. Our new guides, Vadim and Igor are there to meet us and help us through the process. The officials themselves are friendly enough but there isn’t much information about what to do so the guides are invaluable. The border is packed with Kazakhstan people carting huge bundles of goods of every description presumably destined for their local markets. Ironic that 20 years ago all the manufactured goods like trucks and farm equipment in China was of Russian origin and now the trade is all the other way. Long lines of new Dong Feng trucks were all heading over the border to Kazakhstan.
After 2 or 3 hours we are off. A short stop at the end of the border region where the guides trade their battered white van for a brand new black Land Cruiser and we are driving along the so-called “good highway”. It might be good in a Land Cruiser but the MGs are a bit challenged at 80-90 km/h over the patched and uneven road surface. We dodge the worst of the bumps and pot holes and about 2 hours later arrive at Shonzi, our overnight stop. Not a wealthy town and obviously has seen better days. Lots of closed businesses and not a sign of new building activity. The hotel looks as if it has just been built and still to get the finishing touches like render on the rough brickwork. Nope, this is the standard finish. My room has a bed, and old wardrobe and a chair with not a power point in sight. I decide not to ask about internet connectivity. Still, the bed is more comfortable than the Chinese hotels and although the trickle from the hand basin demands patience, the hand held shower has a good flow and nice and warm.
20 May Almaty, Kazakhstan
Today was to be the day we drive across the border into Kyrgyzstan but the guides have learnt the border is closed again so the decision is made to drive to Almaty and then to Bishkek the following day if things have settled down. The fallback is to stay in Kazakhstan and drive directly to Uzbekistan.
More punishing roads and the front shock absorbers which were replaced in our car prior to leaving are not handling the conditions at all well. The front end is bouncing badly and driving is quite difficult on downhill corners. Everything else is behaving well so we push on.
We are driving through typical Kazakhstan steppe country with rolling grasslands each side and snow capped mountains in the background. Occasionally we see a nomadic horseman herding sheep. After a short time we come to the turnoff for Charyn Canyon, one of Kazakhstan’s favourite tourist sites. Good, a chance for a walk down through the canyon which is deeply eroded sandstone just like a mini Grand Canyon. At the bottom is a fast flowing river presumably still carrying the melting snow. Great white water opportunities but the only other people in sight are a group of teenagers enjoying a few beers away from the eyes of the authorities. The drinking age in Kazakhstan is 21 and there is a zero-blood alcohol rule for drivers.
Lunch stop at a roadside cafe and time to watch the passing parade. The really sharp guys dressed in black are driving everything from black Mercs to a blinged up GMC SUV.
On to Alamaty which is described in Lonely Planet as the most European of the ‘stan’s cities. A good description of a city which has beautiful street trees, cafes everywhere and plenty of modern European cars. Dan was chatting to someone at lunchtime who said the city is run by 10 families and between them they have 5 Ferraris.
Dave’s car has started losing oil again so he decides to hire a truck as back-up in case his car doesn’t make to Bishkek where hopefully it can be repaired with parts sent from his workshop.
That evening there is a group meeting to discuss the risks of travelling through Kyrgyzstan given the border closing. Mila, our tour manager in Bukhara has talked with the Kyrgyzstan guide who says there is no problem and that he has had a number of groups through in the past week with no issues. The majority vote is to go.
21 May Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
An uneventful drive out of Almaty towards Bishkek on a good surface, quite a change from yesterday on the road into Almaty from the east. Raining gently for most of the trip but by the time we reached the border crossing around 2:00 pm it had eased up. Here we met our new guide, Arsen, who had to come across to the Kazakhstan side to show the group visa to the border officials to let us start the crossing. When we finally got to the Kyrgyzstan immigration people no-one seemed to have a clue how to interpret the English language carnet. We were sent to the far end of the car park with our cars while Arsen negotiated with the bureaucracy. Finally he told us to come back and we successfully re-presented our passports and carnets. The whole process took 4 hours. I don’t know how anyone would get through the maze without the help of a local guide to help with the process and the translation.
Just 30 km after the border we entered Bishkek and negotiated our way through the peak hour to our fairly spectacular 12 storey 5 star hotel. Magnificent views of the mountains from every room and working internet!
22 May Lake Issy-kul, Kyrgyzstan
A rest day for the cars with the plan being to travel by mini-bus to Lake Issyk-kul. First though, we had a short drive into the hills behind Bishkek to the base for some serious mountain climbing. The peaks behind Bishkek are over 4500m with a good coverage of snow through most of the year. We did the short walk up to a picnic area just 1.3 km from the car park and admired magnificent views of the mountains. Then back to the city itself for a short tour centred on the parliament building, the ‘White House’ which is the President’s office and appears larger than the other White House. The fence was seriously damaged and burnt in one area where the recent riots took place and the President overthrown.
Shortly after noon we headed off for the lake along a fairly bumpy road thinking how good it was to give the cars a rest but also thinking that the mini-bus wasn’t any more comfortable than the MGs especially when you were sitting in the back seat. The green of Bishkek was soon replaced by very arid country, occasional very poor looking villages and disused factories. When the country gained independence from Russia in 1991, they lost their only customer for their manufactured goods and there was no way they could compete in the global market. Kyrgyzstan’s only income these days is from tourism and around $80m/year from the US to allow them to use an airbase for operations over Afghanistan.
As we neared the lake there was evidence of tourist hotels and guest houses under construction all with high walls. These are being built to attract the citizens of Bishkek to spend their summers by the water. Noosa it ain’t!
Around 3:00 pm I followed up my email to Moss Motors in the UK with a phone call enquiring about the feasibility of shipping a pair of shock absorbers to Tashkent before our arrival on the 27 May. When I introduced myself, the chap said he had just sent a reply to my email saying no problem. Just give them the address of the hotel and they would be happy to ship them and they should arrive the day before our arrival. Excellent!
23 May Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Sunday dawned bright and sunny. What a contrast to the steady rain and grey skies of yesterday. Lake Issyk-Kul is 125 km east to west and 65 km north to south with snow capped mountain ranges 4000-4500m high on the north and south sides. The Aurora Hotel Resort is in Cholpon-Ata about mid way along the northern shore and from each of the 250 rooms there is a fantastic view of extensive green gardens in the foreground, the deep blue of the lake beyond and the ranges in the distance. Like nearly all of the hotels and public buildings, the hotel dates to the Soviet era and we were told by our guide it was a popular destination for Soviet officials for their conferences and holidays. Today it is popular with wealthy people from Bishkek but the holiday season doesn’t begin until mid-June so we were almost the only guests. The hotel was in reasonable shape and the gardens beautifully maintained. I asked our guide how much the gardeners and maintenance people would be paid and he thought maybe $100/month.
On the return journey to Bishkek we visited a petroglyph site dated prior to 2000 BC. Many of the rocks had carvings of animals and hunters and it is assumed it was a stopping off place for nomadic horsemen. Closer to Bishkek we visited the site of one of the towns dating from the 10th to 12th centuries. 25m of the original 45m brick tower has been restored and the earth walls are still visible.
On our return to the hotel I wanted to have a go at topping up the front shock absorbers with oil to see if that would improve their damping but when I looked at the lhs the problem was much more serious. The upper wishbone which should be splined and locked by a cotter pin to the shock absorber shaft had come loose and the hammering from the rough roads had elongated the holes in the wishbone. Nothing we could do but put it together again and hope it would survive 1000 km to Tashkent where I had arranged for the new parts to be sent from the UK.
24 May Chychkan State Reserve, Kyrgyzstan
A short drive today, just 250 km, to a guest house south of Bishkek on the main highway to Osh in the Chychkan State Reserve. About 150 km after leaving Bishkek the road started ascending the mountain range following a fast flowing river. Absolutely beautiful scenery with fresh spring grass and snowy peaks in the background. At about 2000m, there were a succession of hairpin bends taking us to the peak of just over 3200m, well above the snowline. Through a long tunnel before descending into a broad grass covered valley with horses, cattle and goats tended by nomadic Kyrgs. Yurts everywhere along the roadside with the locals offering a sideline business in the sale of plastic bottles filled with honey and oil containers of every description full of dodgy looking oil. Didn’t ever see anybody stop and buy anything so one could imagine how old and tired the contents were. At the border gate before we started the climb I had bought a bag of apples from an elderly lady thinking it would be good to pump a few som back into the local economy. They turned out to be the oldest and tiredest apples you have ever seen – a bit like her face really. Simon amused himself on the way down the hill by rolling them down the road to see if the apple would beat the car in front into the corner. He nearly did it. Every few km we came across herds of horses, donkeys or goats being driven up from the valley to the alpine pastures for the summer. The few tourists on the road parked by the side of the road to let the animals past but the trucks just pushed their way through with horns blaring.
Over another 3200m pass we descended into the valley where we found our guest house. It had just re-opened for the summer season so we were one of the first visitors. Idyllic surroundings with a raging stream only a few metres from the rooms, I picked one a few doors back thinking it might be a bit quieter away from the stream. Definitely no internet and not even a phone signal.
As the sun went down the temperature dropped quickly and by 6 pm everyone had donned at least 4 layers of clothing and we were still shivering. We found a Moldavian red wine which turned out to be undrinkable by anyone but Ian Besley so the better bet was a fairly good cognac for about $12. Just after starting dinner the door suddenly opened and a local chap burst in wanting to give us his best wishes. He had seen our team further back and having just driven from Russia himself was very excited to meet us. Simon offered him a glass of cognac but he wanted to share his ‘best quality’ Russian vodka with us and ended up leaving the bottle on the table insisting we enjoy it.
25 May Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Today was a long 450 km drive to Osh so we left early. A beautiful drive past a huge hydro reservoir and on into the Fergana valley. About 50 km from Osh we stopped at another of the 10th century towers where there was a large crowd of school children on a school excursion. In contrast to the children of Bishkek, many of these kids spoke quite good English and wanted to chat with us and tell us their names. All along the road people were waving and cheering us on. How much can one take of this ‘rock star’ treatment!
26 May Fergana, Uzbekistan
Another early start so we could visit Suleiman, the hill behind Osh. Osh has existed for over 3,000 years and was an important Silk Road town on the way to Kashgar. Suleiman is regarded as a special place by Moslems and they come there to pray especially on Fridays. Then it was down to the auto parts market to get some oil for Dave’s car. An amazing place for a car enthusiast with cheap parts of every description for every model. Simon bought a couple of 3-pointed star bonnet badges for his son’s Mercedes. $150 in Australia and $3 here. Reg bought a scissor jack for $4 – hope it does the job when he tries it out. Next stop was the Osh Bazaar, a major trading place during the Silk Road days and still the place where Osh locals buy everything from fruit and vegetables to clothing and rugs. Arsen said that most of the products now come from China just like every other market around the world.
As Arsen had suggested the clearance through the Kyrgyzstan immigration was very low key and fast. The border was closed again to locals but open to the few foreigners who wanted to go through. On the other side, the Uzbekistan officials clearly wanted to fill in the day so each car took around 45 minutes to be processed – 4.5 hours for the group. We got to know the group of kids who lived with their families in ‘no-mans’ land between the two countries. We learnt from their uncle that when the Russians left in 1991, about 20 families were allowed to stay in their homes between the borders and they were free to travel into Kyrgyzstan whenever they wanted. None of the adults seemed to be working so they passed the time chatting to the passing parade of travellers.
Here we met Gulya, our guide through Uzbekistan. We set off to follow her and the driver but shortly after leaving the border the road was blocked because the President had been visiting the area that day. This meant a long detour through many small villages where we discovered the power of social media such as Twitter. All the young people seemed to be waiting for us with cameras at the ready and many of them followed our cavalcade with many kids hanging out the car windows videoing our progress. They passed and re-passed us up to 3 wide weaving in and out and forcing the oncoming cars into the opposite gutter. No-one seemed to be too concerned and no-one got angry. Dave and Dan were in front sounding their horn and waving and every one waved back with big smiles on their faces. Quite amazing!
27 May Tashkent, Uzbekistan
A good drive today from Fergana to Tashkent. Fergana is in a beautifully fertile valley – the story goes that when God was handing out parcels of land to all the peoples of the earth, the Uzbeks hung back and missed out on an allocation. When they went to God and explained the situation, he took pity on them and said that he only had one parcel left which he was going to keep for himself but out of his infinite goodness would allow them to occupy it. As we get closer to Bukhara and beyond the land turns to hot desert so we were told to expect a big contrast.
On the way to Tashkent we stop off at Kockand (Qoqand) to see the palace of Khudoyar Khan. This is the first of the restored palaces and mosques we visit over the next few days so we admire the intricate and colourful tiling and the sheer scale of the buildings. Only the front three of the original seven courtyards and 114 buildings have been restored – the remaining four at the rear where his 43 concubines lived are still in ruins. The story goes that because the Khan was only allowed four wives under Islamic law, he kept a mullah on the staff who would marry him to his selected concubine for the night and then divorce them in the morning. The palace was completed in 1873 just three years before the Tsar’s troops arrived to blow up the fortifications and abolish his position. He fled to Russia and was later killed by bandits in Afghanistan when he was returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Some would call that karma.
The roads in Uzbekistan are full of Daewoo and Chevrolet models of every description. Matiz, Nexia, Lacetti, Tacuma and the tiny Damas vans which are used as taxis. When the Russians left in 1991, the then head of Daewoo, Chairman Kim, did a deal with President Karimov to set up a local car assembly operation in exchange for punitive duties on new and second hand imports. A nice deal.
Tomorrow will be our first free day so we are looking forward to a day of sightseeing with Gulya who turns out to be most informative. Gulya has been a guide to Hilary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Prince Charles but said she only gets an interesting group like ours about once a year. She might have just been looking for a good tip. Uzbeks are the most delightful people – very open and friendly and they all seem to go out of their way treating guests to their country well.
The other good news for the day was that the shock absorbers which were ordered from UK 3 days ago turned up as promised and were fitted this evening in the car park of the poshest hotel in Tashkent. The parts actually turned up yesterday which was remarkable service but were sent back because we weren’t there to receive them. We arrived about 5:30 pm after the delivery man had knocked off but Gulya got on the phone and demanded that the parts be delivered this evening. We had to pay a ‘small gift’ but this was well worth it!
May 28 Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Sightseeing in the old part of Tashkent including the Kulkedash Medressa, Barakhon Medressa, the residence of Sunni Mufti of Central Asia, the Museum of Decorative and Applied arts and the Chorsu Bazaar. Medressas were secondary schools predominately teaching the Koran and music to young boys from wealthy families.
Many of the mosques and medresses in Tashkent have been restored in recent times funded prior to 1991 by the Russians and subsequently by the State. Many were seriously damaged as a result of the earthquake in 1966 which left much of the city in ruins and 300,000 people homeless. The locals welcomed Russian help with the restoration but were less keen when 20% of the new houses were offered only to the Russian volunteers who wanted to stay. In most cases, the mosque restorations have been a bit of a disaster. The original construction is quite different to the construction of cathedrals and public buildings in Western Europe which is based on closely fitted blocks of granite or other hard stone. Mortar is rarely used in this type of construction. Because there are no suitable stones materials in this part of the world, mosques are constructed of soft clay bricks with thick mortar in between. The outer surfaces are then covered with beautiful tiling in bright patterns and the domes covered in blue tiles. The problem seems to be that even minor movements from earth tremors or traffic or just normal deterioration from the weather cause the base structure to slowly crumble and then the tiles become dislodged. Many of the mosques also have a large portico at the front supported by huge timber columns. It would be expected that the normal expansion and contraction of these columns with temperature and moisture would also be a problem. The local’s explanation for the obvious lean of most of the minarets is that they are “bowing to their architect”.
Our visit to the Central Gardens was interrupted by security guards shooing everyone back from the main area because the President was expected to drive away from a meeting in his Tashkent offices ‘in the next 5 minutes’. We waited about half an hour with nothing happening and then moved on. Maybe he doesn’t like to be admired up close by his loyal subjects or maybe he is concerned they aren’t all totally loyal. Coincidentally the BBC News has raised the subject of the 2006 Andijan massacre when about 80 so-called terrorists were killed when the militia panicked. The Andijans keep insisting that there were no terrorists, just a few people who disagreed with the President’s views. The West’s ‘War on Terror’ has been a big win for President Karimov. Not only has he negotiated a significant boost to the country’s coffers from the US in exchange for the right to use their air field as a base for the war in Afghanistan but he gets to label dissidents as ‘terrorists’.
May 29 Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The drive to Samarkand was fairly uneventful with the only surprise being the intensive agriculture each side of the road for almost the entire 320 km. Most of us had been expecting a much drier and harsher environment but this will come as we head for Bukhara and beyond.
The car feels just like a new one with the new shock absorbers. While the guide describes the road surfaces as ‘good’, there are many stretches where the surface is very broken up and we need to be continuously dodging huge potholes and heavily repaired surfaces with poor foundations.
In contrast with Kyrgyzstan where all types of fuel from 80 octane up to 98 in some places were freely available, Uzbekistan is predominately an 80 octane market which is a worry for our cars. They seem to run without audible detonation but when the key is turned off the engine just wants to keep running-on. The only way to stop is to drop the clutch with the car in gear to stall the engine. We are surprised to see many fuel stations with barriers at the entrance and many advertising 91 octane but no-one had any when we checked. We limped into Samarkand with low fuel levels hoping that fuel would be more freely available in the big city.
We arrived around mid-afternoon so there was time to visit the Gur-Emir mausoleum, the burial place of Tamerlane. Tamerlane, or ‘Timur the Lame’ was a rather brutal tyrant who went on a spectacular campaign ending in 1395 with his domination of modern day Iran, Syria, eastern Turkey and most of the ‘stans. He plundered wealth from the conquered lands and captured artisans who were put to work to develop Samarkand into a lavish showcase of wealth. He died in 1405 after becoming ill on reaching China which he had also intended to conquer – obviously a man of great ambition!
A visit to the Registan complex followed including the Ulugbeck Medressa, Tilly Kari Medressa and Mosque and the Sher (Tiger) Dor Medressa. Ulugbeck was one of Tamerlane’s four sons and lead the study of astronomy and astrology in the region.
Meanwhile Gulya had been following up the fuel situation and learnt that supplies had just about dried up throughout the country. Her son-in-law who lives in Samarkand saved the day by putting us in touch with a taxi fuel station with stocks of 91 octane fuel so after dinner we made a dash to fill all the cars with enough fuel to get us to the Turkmenistan border 400 km away.
May 30 Samarkand, Uzbekistan
More sightseeing around Samarkand including the archeological site of Afrasiab, the original site of the city, the Shakhi-Zinda necropolis, the Bibi Khanum (grandmother of Tamerlane) mosque and the Samarkand bazaar. Another feast/challenge to the senses with huge halls of every kind of produce. Cherries and other fruits are just coming into season so we buy a few bags along with lots of other goodies.
Everywhere you look in the central part of Samarkand there is building construction. A large area previously occupied by the Armenian community is now being completely rebuilt with new shops, colleges, hotels with the objective of enhancing Samarkand’s appeal as a conference centre. The buildings all have a consistent Georgian style to the facades so there is a bit of Disneyland feel to it but maybe we need to wait until it is finished before forming an opinion. While all this is going on, the roads are also being rebuilt. This means that manholes are either 15 cm below the road surface, 15 cm above it or just missing altogether so there is a bottomless pothole the size of a car wheel. This means all the drivers are good at dodging and really keeps everyone on their toes so to speak. The same goes for footpaths and even the alleys through the bazaar which have deep gutters across them without any bridges or warning signs. Another neat trick on the roads is that the verges are lined in many places with typical concrete barriers. In Australia these all link together so if a car were to hit them it would be deflected safely and the driver could bring it to a stop without risk of serious injury. In Uzbekistan, the barriers are each stand alone with a 5 metre gap between them so if one were to hit one it would be a head-on into an immovable object and all over in a second. The inescapable conclusion is that this is a country where you need to be constantly concentrating on what you are doing and that you have to take personal responsibility. I have to say that this really appeals me and would much rather drive here than in Australia despite the potholes.
Coming back to the hotel we saw long queues of cars outside the few stations with remaining stocks. No-one seems to be sure what is causing the problem but one rumour is that the government is selling fuel to neighbouring countries to deliberately create shortages so they can then raise prices. Another rumour is that while Uzbekistan has large oil and gas reserves, they only have limited refining capacity so this is just a normal supply and demand situation. As there haven’t been any problems for at least two years the former theory sounds more plausible.
May 31 Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Today’s drive into Bukhara was through very flat country, still quite fertile but getting a lot warmer, it feels like low 30s but when we arrive it is around 35 deg and very hot in the cars through the city traffic. This will be the pattern for the next few weeks I expect.
Along each side of the road are heavily pruned mulberry trees with just small shoots of spring growth. We were told that the silk from the caterpillars feeding on the mulberries is used in some of the silk garments and rugs sold in the larger towns.
We are staying in Mila’s B&B right in the centre of Bukhara. This was originally a Jewish quarter but they have moved to Moscow and New York according to Gulya so the area is being redeveloped to cater for tourists. It is built around one of the only two surviving wells which date back to the 16th century. Old mulberries around the well were planted in 1477 according to their labels. Some are white mulberries and others are the dark colours which stain everything in range. In the 19th century when the locals still depended on the 200 wells for their water there were frequent plagues and average life expectancy was 32 years.
The ‘sightseeing’ turns out to be a trip to the “trading domes”. Everything from Russian fur hats to jewellery and of course rugs and suzanas. Suzan is the Iranian word for needlework so a suzana is a rectangle composed of strips of intricate needlework which are then sewn together to form a decorative wall covering.
The silk rugs are very good quality at reasonable prices. A double knot rug 180 cm x 120 cm with 144 knots/sq inch is US$2200, possibly less with a bit of haggling. We go to the bank the next morning to draw out some US$ but the first one doesn’t have any at all. The second has a few US$ but will only take Visa. No Mastercard or Amex so no rugs this time.
I did mean to include a section in the diary about the food in the various ‘stans countries. There are so many new experiences every day, it’s hard to recall them all in the odd moment when I’m putting the diary together. Overall the food is good and much, much better than Lonely Planet would lead you to believe. In fact many things are much better.
Tonight’s meal was fairly typical: Tomato and cucumber salad to start followed by a barley broth, sometimes with a meat ball or dumpling but tonight just a little meat and carrots. They use a lot of dill and other spices which are very tasty. Main course was ‘plov’ – rice with grated carrot and marinated lamb. Other meals are often shaslyk – they like the lamb interspersed with fat to tenderise and flavorise which can a bit much but you can pull the fatty bits out. Desserts are usually sweet and sticky. Last night we had vodka shots as an aperitif – Gulya’s idea and she knocked down two straight to show us how it is done. Breads are sour dough and sometimes a little dry. The local bread is a circular pie dish sized ‘loaf’ with a thin centre section and thick rim. The upper surface is glazed and often patterned using metal spiked tools. The glazing keeps the bread fresh even when you buy from the women lining the roadsides at lunchtime. Passing motorists buy dozens of these breads, perhaps for their restaurants.
June 1 Bukhara, Uzbekistan
A day of sightseeing around Bukhara starting with the Summer Palace about 9 km out of the city centre. This was built for the last Emir of Bukhara with Russian influenced architecture. A huge palace built around a central courtyard and extensive gardens. Some distance away from the main palace and fronting a large man-made lake is the residence for the Emir’s harem. Again, beautiful architecture but just like the main palace buildings, sadly in need of extensive maintenance. Peeling paint, loose and missing tiles and plasterwork heavily damaged by rising damp. Bukhara sits on a highly saline water table whose surface is only about 1m below ground level so rising damp is a big problem in many buildings.
We then travel back to the Bolo-Khaus mosque which is in front of the other surviving city well. The mosque has a very large and tall portico supported by 20 wooden columns. Gulya suggests we don’t enter the mosque because it is heavily cracked and she is concerned that one day it is going to crumble. Across the road are the ancient city walls. Massive brick walls with sloping sides rising to parapets from which there are good views across the city. A little further on is Job’s Well which reputedly dates back to the Old Testament prophet. The water comes from a separate aquifer and is supposed to have amazing healing properties.
While we have been out sightseeing, Dave, Dan and Reg have made another attempt on repairing the oil leak in the MGA. The parts which were shipped from Melbourne about two weeks ago have finally caught up with us so this time a ‘Speedi Sleeve’ is fitted to repair the damaged surface on the crankshaft together with a new rear main oil seal. Our guide had arranged space in a big dealership so they had good facilities to work in and help from 31 enthusiastic mechanics. The bill for the days work was just over $30. Dave’s plan is to make this work right through to London, even if some oil needs to be topped up en-route. At least he shouldn’t be leaving a trail of oil behind him and all over our following cars. I had been studiously avoiding driving behind Dave but there are still oil deposits all over the front of our car.
June 2 Mary, Turkmenistan
We left Bukhara around 8:00 am for the short drive to the border across very dry flat country. This is a very poor region of Uzbekistan.
The border crossing was again a long process despite the glossy appearance of the Turkmenistan customs buildings donated by the US Government in the interests of “strong border control”. We wondered whether this has something to do with the fact that Turkmenistan also shares a border with Iran where we will be crossing in a few days. 5 hours later and over $200 poorer and we finally get away with the help of a new guide, Gozel.
It is now 5:00 pm and we have 280 km of desert to cross before Mary, our overnight stopover. The road crosses long undulating sand hills with the occasional camel wandering along the roadside or being ridden by goat herdsmen.
Just before sunset we arrive at the ruins of the ancient city of Merv, about 30 km from Mary. This was a huge city of over 100,000 people in its heyday. The original fortress city of Erk Kala dates back to 200 BC and was a crossroad in the early days of the Silk Road. Built on the river, it expanded in several stages to cover a huge area. It became so large that wealthy merchants who wanted to move there had to build their extravagant residences outside the city walls. Some of these ruins appear about 4-5 storeys high and are still standing. Along with just about every other city in Central Asia, it was destroyed by Genghis Khan in the early 13th century. In 1795, Merv was again destroyed by the Emir of Bukhara and then gradually fell into ruins. By this time, the river had gradually changed course so the old city dried up and the river now passes through Mary, a modern city built by the Russians. The central part of the Sultan of Sanjar’s Palace has recently been restored with Turkish aid to give some idea of the scale of construction. We drive the last 30 km in the dark along some very rough roads before finally reaching the outskirts of Mary.
June 3 Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Another long run across the desert leaving Mary at 7:00 am because we have 350 km to cover and are told the road is very rough.
First stop is for petrol on the outskirts of Mary. 95 octane fuel is again available at around 50 cents/litre to us. This is a little confusing because the marked price is 0.62 Manat/litre or around 23 cents. Haven’t quite got to the bottom of that one yet! The queue at many of the fuel stops stretched back about 20 cars which we were told is normal for the beginning of the month when every Turkmen is eligible for 120 litres of fuel free of charge. They also get free household gas and electricity but, according to Lonely Planet, matches have to paid for so many locals leave their gas running continuously.
Instead of the Daewoo and Chev vehicles we see a new duopoly on the roads. Everywhere there are second hand Opels and Toyotas to the exclusion of most other brands. Because petrol is so cheap, the cars are larger. The smallest cars are Astras and the occasional Corolla but most are Opel Vectras and Toyota Camrys, Avalons and Mark Twos. Presumably the Camrys and Avalons come from the US and the Mark Twos from Japan. Later as we get into large cities there are a few new cars but to our surprise, very few luxury Euro brands. Not sure what the tax situation is – our guide thought there were no taxes because there is no local industry to protect.
To our relief the road is actually a lot better than many of the roads in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – sure it was very bumpy but with relatively few big potholes and broken pieces of road which are so tough on the cars. Every few km there is a new bridge under construction so we need to detour off the road – these sections were fairly rough and very dusty.
As we get closer to Ashgabat, the desert is replaced by huge, Soviet style cotton fields watered from the longest irrigation channel in the world. It seems incredible that this very dry part of the world can support cotton production – no crazier than growing cotton in Australia I suppose.
I had read a little about Ashgabat before arriving and learnt about the great ruler, Turkmenbashi and his vision for the capital city. Formerly Saparmurat Niyazov, he became President when Soviet rule ended, declared himself leader of the Democratic Party and then locked up all the opposition members who haven’t been heard of since.
In 1948, Ashgabat suffered a major earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale which destroyed virtually every building and killed 110,000 people although the official figure was only 14,000. The Soviets rebuilt some of the earlier buildings and also erected a large number of characterless multi-storey office and apartment buildings. Rather than knock all these buildings down, the new Presidency went on a building spree using the wealth generated by the country’s vast reserves of oil and gas together with cotton exports. New tree-lined avenues were constructed and an endless succession of public buildings erected including a new Parliament, Palace of Turkmenbashi, Presidential offices, Museum of Fine Arts, Library, Theatres, Universities along with a separate building for each of the Ministries – Ministers for Finance, Health, Interior, Foreign Relations, Railways, Arts, Tourism, Carpets, Cotton and even a Minister for Fairness. At key locations there are monuments such as the Arch of Neutrality, Independence Square, Earthquake Memorial and the Monument celebrating Turkmenbashi’s book Ruhnama describing his version of Turkmen history and culture. Each of these monuments has a large gold statue of the great ruler in various impressive poses. There are also rows of new 12 storey apartment blocks to try to attract people from their old single storey houses – unfortunately people are reluctant to move so the apartments appear to be mostly empty. Every one of these buildings is faced with the best quality imported marble and topped with gold domes or other ornamentation. Beautiful green lawns and fountains line all the avenues. Sprinklers are running continuously to keep everything green in the dry 35 deg heat. At night all the buildings and fountains are colourfully lit – an amazing spectacle but there are hardly any people on the streets to appreciate it.
June 4 Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
We have a day free for further sightseeing around Ashgabat and start the morning at the ancient ruins of Nisa, formerly a Parthian city from the period 3,000 BC to 3,000 AD. A team of Italian archaeologists are excavating areas where buildings existed inside the original walls. Some historians believe Nisa was the capital of the Parthian empire but the local guide is sceptical because they haven’t found the sort of relics to support this theory. It is surprising that we can wander freely around this fragile site of old unfired clay bricks, some of which have been protected by a render of clay and straw but other areas exposed to the elements and seriously eroded by rain in many places.
The next stop is at the mosque built by Turkmenbashi in his old village on the outskirts of Ashgabat. The theme expressed in messages at the entrance and around the mosque interior is equality between Allah and the great ruler himself. The mosque can accommodate 20,000 people under a huge dome. There are 8 entrances representing the 8 doors to paradise in the Koran in the upper cupola to remember the 1948 earthquake and the structure is 91m high representing 1991, the year of independence from Russia.
Later we visit the replica of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul close to our hotel in downtown Ashgabat. A little smaller than the original, it was financed from Turkey and services are said to be aimed at attracting young people to the more extreme expressions of the Islamic faith.
June 5 Bojnurd, Iran
This is our last morning in the ‘stans so I should reflect on the overall impressions compared with our expectations before coming on the trip. Firstly the reputation of the people as warm, generous and open is just what we experienced. While the Turkmen people appear more reserved than Kazakh, Kyrgy and Uzbeks they were still very helpful and open when we had an opportunity to engage with them. At no time did we ever feel in the slightest bit threatened, there were no armed militias, no police harassment, in case quite the opposite. This may be down to the excellent guides we had because they made the introductions at each of the regular checkpoints and border crossings. I can’t recall how many police just wanted to be photographed with the cars and us. We were never stopped at any of the radar speed checks – our guides had a good knowledge when to slow down and be cautious.
We reached the first of the Turkmenistan border exits at 9:00 am when the gates were supposed to open but apart from a line of trucks more than a km long, there wasn’t much happening. It was very hot already so we found a shady tree and waited another half an hour when the gates opened. From this point there was a 30 km drive up into the ranges which mark the border with Iran. As far as we could see it was totally deserted except for sentry towers on each of the taller mountain tops. When we reached the actual border crossing at the top we were second in the queue behind a group of diplomatic families from Turkey who had no paperwork prepared so everything took longer than normal. The Turkmenistan officials reported to a rather arrogant and rude chief who just sat there and ordered everybody around including an elderly woman who attempted to amuse her grandson by weighing him on a set of scales in the corner. She got a blast as well.
A totally different atmosphere on the Iranian side of the border. The first two officials laughed and joked with us and shook our hands at least 3 times. Here we learnt that we had arrived at the start of the annual mourning period for the death of the Ayatollah so all businesses were supposed to be closed. This wasn’t a problem until it came to the negotiation for third party insurance cover. The man responsible kindly agreed to drive to his office in the next town to arrange the insurance and then fax copies back to the border. This created a new record for border crossings – 6 hours.
By this time we had met our new guide, Houssein Ravaniyar, an elderly man with a good sense of humour and a potentially unhealthy disrespect for officialdom and religion. He is written up very accurately on page 149 of Lonely Planet Iran.
The good road surfaces continued once we had cleared the border entry and the hundreds of trucks waiting to get through. The first section was fairly entertaining because we would drive for 10 km or so and then be faced with a wall of earth about a metre high. Off to the side was very rough section which we needed to crawl through and then negotiate our way back on to the good road. Our guide later explained that the road was due to be opened in a week but he was a bit impatient. The best thing is that the trucks had to use the old road so we had the new road to ourselves including driving through two passes of around 2000m in the Kopit Dag ranges. Our guide pulled over in the main street of the first big town, Quchan. People immediately started crowding around “Where are you from, welcome to my country” and Peter Buckingham was almost immediately invited into the nearest house “and bring all your friends”. So we did. The middle aged couple spoke no English but one of their daughters was an English teacher so she handled all the introductions. After a few cups of tea and slices of watermelon our guide also arrived and explained that this was a region largely populated by Kurdish people who “moved” there about 400 years to guard the border against Russian invasion. Within a few minutes our guide had challenged the English speaking daughter on her rosy views of life in Iran and they started a fairly intense argument. An interesting start to our visit and there was more to come!
At the next big town the guide stopped again at a large roundabout right in front of a mosque. Almost immediately there was a wall of people around us and 4 of the 5 lanes around the roundabout became blocked with cars who simply stopped to have a look. Horns blaring but nobody seemed to be worried until a few minutes later when the police arrived and sorted it all out. Our first night in Iran was spent in Bojnurd at another hotel which had clearly seen better days. Noisy, rattling air conditioning with not a switch in sight to turn it off and most of the light globes broken. Oh well, at least the bed was comfortable.
June 6 Babolsar, Iran
This was to be a long day with so we got away early. The first challenge was to find a bank to get some local currency. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge as we had to wait until 9:30 am when the daily rates would be updated. In the end an alternative solution was found but I probably shouldn’t talk about that…..
This was to be the warmest day yet so we stocked up on water. Even so by the end of the day all our bottles were empty. I would love to know how warm it was but internet sites like BBC News are all blocked here. My guess is that it would have reached close to 40 deg C. The first part of the drive was through the valley on the south side of the Kopit Dag ranges and in contrast to the Turkmenistan side, this was mostly very fertile country with crops, fruit trees and even grape vines. From there on as we drove into a series of large towns, the driving became more and more frenetic and as Peter Buckingham said, it was like driving 4 Arrowsmiths in succession. (for the non-motor sport readers, Arrowsmith is one of the more demanding Targa sections) The worry was that unlike the ‘stans where most of the cars were in reasonably good shape, nearly every car here showed serious battle-scars. The only way through was to call the other driver’s bluff and keep moving – I’m sure our distinctive cars helped give us priority when the going got tough.
Because Iran has ambitions to be the auto manufacturing centre for the Middle East, there are punitive taxes on imported cars. The roads are full of ancient Paykans (1960s Hillman Hunter built locally until recently) and more modern locally assembled Hyundai and Kia cars. Nice to know the Koreans are supporting the sanctions so effectively. I also noticed a brand new Chinese designed and no doubt locally assembled Lifan so they are also on the move.
We got to the Michka Hotel in Babolsar on the Caspian Sea at around 7:00 pm – not much available in the food department so we finally tracked down a cafe and enjoyed a fairly unusual but tasty pizza. A few locals came around wanting to chat and we learnt more about some of the tensions simmering under the surface……
June 7 Babolsar, Iran
A rest day in Babolsar so we made our way down to the beach. It could have been any beach in Australia except for all the rubbish and the sight of women fully clad from top to toe, usually all in black but still enjoying a splash in the water.
The blokes decided this was a good opportunity to service the cars so with the cars parked on a stretch of grass under a few imported eucalypts we jacked them all up, greased everything in sight and then borrowed the hotel’s garden hose to give them all a good wash. Dan found a loose steering rod ball joint on Dave’s car which would explain the knocking noise he was experiencing so this was replaced. His car is still not using oil after more than a thousand kms from Bukhara so fingers crossed he will make it to the UK without more trouble.
This afternoon I walked around the town and ended up back at the beach cafe where Dave, Dan, Reg and Simon were chatting to a young couple at the next table. Ali-Reza and his fiancée Sayaz had met two months ago and were getting married in three weeks time. They offered to share their hubbly-bubbly with us. The flavour was a fruit, hard to pin down exactly what, together with spices – very intoxicating in a natural way.
June 8 Bandar Anzali, Iran
Another long drive to Bandar Anzali at the Western end of the Caspian Sea. By this time we had worked out that Hossein had no concept of distances so we tried to pin him down on the estimated travel times and then trust the map. The first stop was to be a cable car ride to the top of the nearby hills which he had told us was around 20 km away. It was actually 200 km and a pattern was starting to emerge where he would drop the last zero – this often caused confusion when we were talking money and what was and was not included in the tour price.
Along the coast we passed town after town of half finished apartments, hotels and entire resorts – Iran is in a serious economic situation as we later learnt. The cable car resort was in much better shape because of the investment by groups from the Emirates. We even saw satellite dishes on many of the apartments although they were all heavily disguised. There are no visible satellite dishes on homes or apartments owned by Iranians.
The lunch stop was a large once glamorous restaurant on the beachfront. Two story with balconies and beautiful terraces overlooking untended gardens and an almost empty and unused swimming pool. The entrance was flanked by the obligatory pictures of the religious leaders but just around the corner was an advertisement for Fino Sherry – we didn’t bother asking if there was any available for tasting.
A few kms further on we stopped at the former Summer Palace of the Shah. It was built by the last Shah’s father in the 1930s and interestingly is now a museum housing beautiful furniture, decorations and carpets many of which were gifts from France and Italy. Now I wonder why they would want to be good friends with the Shah…. The Palace itself was two stories although only the lower floor is open. There was only one largish bedroom around 6 m x 6m but apparently the last Shah didn’t use it because it was too small for his bed. Nearby is a large hotel where the Shah’s guests stayed and then strolled down through the beautiful gardens for dinner in the Palace.
A couple of the cars had problems during the day. Ken and Sue’s car refused to crank after most stops so we all did a bit of pushing to get it started. This was later diagnosed as a dead battery. They could also hear a loud knocking noise from behind the driver’s seat which turned out to be a failed shock absorber mounting. While we were all at the Palace, Ken and Dan went back into the nearest town and with some effective sign language managed to find a good welding shop which made an excellent on the spot repair for $3. It was all refitted by the time we were ready to leave the Palace. Peter and Kerith’s car was overheating badly through the towns – this turned out to be a faulty fan control and was also easily fixed the next day.
We reached the ‘resort’ hotel around 8:00 pm feeling a bit wrung out from the humidity and long drive. Miles away from the nearest town or restaurant so we settled for salad and soup much to the disappointment of the staff who seemed to be expecting 12 hungry people to tuck into a 4 course meal. A nice walk along the beach just after sundown seemed like a good plan until we actually tried it and were attacked by a few million mossies. The good news was that they had free high(ish) speed internet, but still no international news and no phone connection for foreigners.
June 9 Bandar Anzali
A rest day in Bandar Anzali so with guide in tow, we set off to experience a boat trip around the lagoon to “see the birds and flowers”. When we got to the harbour we all decided the boats looked pretty dodgy, there wasn’t a lifejacket in sight and the price was outrageous by Iran standards. And there wasn’t a sign of bird or plant life apart from a lot of reeds. Funny how we all accept riding in a Paykan with no seat belts but won’t go in a dodgy looking boat.
Instead we walked back into town and found the fish and fruit market near the waterfront. Huge carp nearly a metre long and other not very exciting looking fish all laid out on the footpath in the sun with no refrigeration. Simon had made a new friend so I joined him and met Feri who insisted on buying us tea. Feri was built like the proverbial brick….., spoke reasonably good English and we learnt he had been a bouncer for many years in Cyprus and a body guard in Japan and Korea. He was sitting with a large group of men of all ages who gathered there every day because they couldn’t find jobs. Everyone would emigrate if they could but they know how difficult this is and also that if they were to leave legally they would have to lodge land and house titles with the authorities in case they didn’t return. It seems the sanctions are having exactly the effect the US and other Western nations want. People generally are very unhappy with the country’s leadership. This weekend is the anniversary of last year’s demonstrations when many were killed and injured but people are still bravely wearing green to show their support for demonstrating again this year. We even saw a mosque with green flags flying so perhaps the church is not exactly united either.
June 10 Tabriz, Iran
This morning we continued the tour around the Caspian Sea all the way to Astara which is right on the Azerbaijan border. The narrow strip between the sea and the mountains becomes even more fertile the further we drive and every piece of available land seems to be covered with well irrigated rice paddies. The trees on the hillsides remind us of the Queensland hinterland, or was it just the humidity? After the relatively affluent homes around Bandar Anzali, these towns appear quite poor. Ken’s car appears to be suffering fuel starvation so there are a couple of stops before the points on the fuel pump are cleaned and the car performs well again. Just before reaching Astara we turn off into our guide’s village. He wants to show us his home and meet his son and the chickens. About 60 chickens and a rooster are roaming his garden.
Unfortunately Azerbaijan wasn’t on the itinerary so we swung left away from the coast and climbed about 2000m to the plateau. A fantastic piece of road so we made an executive decision and passed the guide whose Samand didn’t seem to want to go up hills or around corners. A beautiful flowing piece of road with open hairpins and a good surface to play with.
Arrived in Tabriz about 6:30 pm. First impressions were not encouraging. Approaching from the North took us down from the plateau and into a very polluted valley where we could just make out the buildings in the city centre through the smog. The 4* Hotel Pars looked more impressive and we got to park our cars along the ramp leading to the entrance – apparently there weren’t any folks with Ferarris or Lambos staying tonight so we got pride of place. We took a taxi downtown and were amazed at how affluent the city is – expensive looking shops with Western branded goods, very well dressed people and better cars than we have seen so far on our route through Iran. I decided to walk off an excellent Turkish meal (no kebabs!!) by checking out the park beside the hotel. At 10:30 pm there were hundreds of people, couples, families with kids, friends all enjoying the balmy evening with their picnic rugs. Iranians are keen campers and you can see their tents anywhere there is public space or nature parks. Tomorrow is the day to cross the border into Turkey so another early start.
June 11 Dogubayazit, Turkey
The plan to put in some distance early went a bit pear-shaped trying to get fuel. You wouldn’t think fuel would be a problem in a country with some of the largest oil reserves. The major problem seems to be that Iran has little refining capacity so they export crude and then import refined fuels from Russia. The government also limits fuel quality to around 80 octane which isn’t a problem for the locally built cars but doesn’t work too well for blow-ins like us. They are also encouraging CNG by offering it at ridiculously low prices compared with 40 cents/litre for petrol. Locals do get 2 litres per day at 10 cents/litre but they tend to save this for holidays or sell entitlements to friends and relatives. Meanwhile the queues for CNG stretch for hundreds of metres at every outlet. But back to our problems. Two of the cars had very low fuel about 100 km after leaving Tabriz and while our guide was confident there was fuel in another 15 km, there was a mini-mutiny and the group decided to loop back to a station we had seen earlier. This turned out to have no fuel so things were a bit tense for a few minutes. Fortunately Reg had reserve fuel so this was enough to get them to the stop the guide had planned on.
A little further on we left the highway and found ourselves on a narrow well-surfaced road looping through the mountains and across the high plateau. Our destination was the Orthodox Qara Church. Built in the 14th century it was supposed to be on the site of the grave of Tateous who was a disciple of JC and came to the region in 35 AD. The church was extended in the early 19th century and is still used to today by the local Armenian community and a service was underway during our visit which we were invited to join. Very moving to hear the priest singing in a church with such excellent acoustics.
We finally reached the bordertown of Bazargan at around 4:00 pm thinking that we might get lucky and have a quick crossing. Not to be. The Iran officials made it just as difficult to leave with the cars as our entry was. The process for Turkey started out well although a bit of a shambles. Few of the people wore uniforms so it was a bit hard to tell if their questions and intentions were serious. One guy approached us and said he could speed up the process for a little ‘baksheesh’ so we took a punt which seemed to pay off. Then the customs people decided to check two of the cars thoroughly. The Slater and Besley cars were the one selected so they disappeared to another area where everything was stripped out and both the contents and the cars themselves X-rayed. According to Ian Besley it looked very impressive but didn’t find all his medications stored in the spare battery box so not very convincing.
As the afternoon faded and the clouds to the West started lifting, the impressive shape of Mt Ararat started to appear. Most of us had the idea that Mt Ararat was just another small hill amongst others with the remains of a funny looking boat stuck on the top. Turns out this was just another bit of misleading information from Sunday school. Mt Ararat is 5165 m high and is an extinct volcano with the upper half covered with snow and looking remarkably like Mt Fuji. Very impressive and even more so from the balcony of our Hotel Simer about 30 km into Turkey. Dave had no idea when he booked the hotel that it was sited to get the best evening and morning views of the mountain so we were treated to some spectacular views with just the smallest cloud on top in an otherwise clear sky.
Here we said good-bye to our Iran guide, who had accompanied us across the border. Hossein was the most politically active of our guides, all of whom were well educated people with strong views on the situation within their respective countries. Hossein was an active member of the ‘green opposition’ in Iran which was headlined exactly 12 months ago when they protested against the religious regime in Teheran – several people died and many were imprisoned. A few days later there was an article in the Australian reporting the protests marking the previous year’s events. It queried why the West was almost silent on the human rights situation in Iran while at the same time has been lured into supporting the rights of Palestinians in Gaza.
June 12 Erzerum, Turkey
Our first day without a guide and guess who got the short straw to navigate. The first challenge was to find the way to the Palace of Ishak Pasa Saray only 12 km from the hotel. The signposted road off the highway was easy to find but as rough as. About one km in we came across a road crew laying Belgian blocks and they made it pretty clear that the road was closed – no signs but we were getting used to that. Back we went and found another road which meandered through the town and then up the hill to a spectacular site overlooking the valley. It seems Ishak Sara, the son of the founder wasn’t a very nice person but he knew where to find good architects and builders. We decided it would make a fantastic six star hotel if they decided to shut the public out. Amazing views from dozens of good size rooms, each with two windows and a fireplace. It even had integrated central heating – we are in an area over 2000 m above sea level and winter temperatures average minus 25 deg at night and occasionally down to minus 40 deg.
The drive to our overnight stop at Erzerum is through a wide fertile valley between ranges with snow on the higher peaks. Quite different to the dry stony country I had been expecting in Turkey. All work here is still very manual – very few machines used in roadworks, agriculture or building construction.
CH2LON just keeps humming along. It hasn’t used a drop of oil or coolant since the last service in China. The spark plugs were checked today thinking they might look a bit second hand after all the poor quality fuel and hard work the car has done but they looked perfect. A nice even tan colour so the hand work on the carburettor needles before we left seems to be working OK.
We had a few lucky breaks driving into Erzerum, a city of 360,000 people in the North-West of Turkey and just a maze of small streets without any signs. Simon’s technique is to shout out the name of the hotel at every traffic light and hope that somebody points us in the right direction. Just when we were beginning to get a little desperate, a man invited us into his restaurant and told us he had a friend who could be there in a couple of minutes who could guide us and immediately rang him. We said thanks but there was no parking there and we couldn’t wait. The next man we asked was just hopping into his car and kindly offered to lead us – we would never have found it in a million years as it was tucked away from any main streets. The hotel staff looked completely over-awed by these six strange cars in front of the hotel jamming up all the traffic and admitted they had no secure parking. David had been trying to get a straight answer from them for months. Just then, the first man’s friend arrives on the hotel steps and offers to take us to another hotel which does have underground parking. Burak, the part-time guide, instantly becomes our new best friend. He is just finishing third year biology and has excellent English although he has never lived anywhere near an English speaking country. We are well off the normal tourist trail so a shortage of English speakers isn’t surprising. He tells us Erzerum is the most conservative city in Turkey although it looked fairly liberal compared with anywhere in Iran. He offers to show us around after we have settled in.
Right next to the hotel is an ATM – the first we have come across since China. I had tried to use my MasterCard and then a debit card at a fuel stop earlier in the day and both failed so now having a pocket full of Lire was comforting. Next to the ATM is an internet cafe. No-one spoke English so the fall-back was my fairly rusty German – seemed to work OK there and again later in the evening in a shop. This became a regular pattern and made me realise how many Turkish people had returned from Germany when they were no longer needed as “gast-arbeiters” or guest workers.
Burak turns up again at the hotel at the agreed time and is an instant hero for finding a bar which sells beer. Very welcome after our week of abstinence.
June 13 Hopa, Turkey
A fairly short drive today of 250 km heading North to Hopa on the Black Sea. Burak has suggested a route out of town and a couple of interesting sites along the way so we will pace ourselves to enjoy the day.
The first two sites are old churches dating back to the 10th century. Both are about 10 km to the West of the main road so we wind our way along one-lane tracks to find what were quite large but unrestored Orthodox churches. Hard to imagine why such large churches were built in these narrow valleys but somebody obviously had a vision. They appear to have survived earthquakes and fires but someone is going to have to find some serious money to bring them back to their former glory.
The road continues through the Georgian Valley towards our overnight stop in Hopa which is only three km from the border with Georgia. After we leave the churches the valley becomes steeper and narrower and the road becomes more interesting. There are long stretches of gravel and dust as a result of repairs after rock slides. There is a lot of work going on high on the valley sides where the road is to be relocated. A huge engineering project to rival anything we saw in China. Prior to Borcka, the road is a little rough in places but a lot of fun and then from Borcka to the coast is all new hot-mix and even more fun. The valley is a mass of lush new spring growth in very fertile soil and as we get closer to the coast we see tea plantations covering the hillsides. More like Sri Lanka than our images of Turkey.
The Hotel Sarp is right on the Black Sea and one of the best we have stayed in. Almost completely empty – this is high season, where are all the tourists? Just after sun down we walk a few hundred metres up the stony beach to the Serender Restaurant and enjoy the first fish for the trip. We’re all a bit over shaslyks/kebabs/thingies on sticks.
June 14 Hopa, Turkey
A rest day and time to give the cars a bit of attention. Simon wanted to change some money and I wanted to clean the engine which was covered in dust. Just down the road we saw Ken’s car in a small garage and stopped to see how he was going. The young mechanic had found the reason for his starting problems – the fan belt was slipping at high loads. His car had been running two cooling fans continuously plus headlights. When we checked at low speed everything seemed OK but with everything switched on the car was just flattening the battery between stops. Sometimes you need to leave things to the professionals. I saw the mechanic had a pressure cleaner and vacuum and asked whether he could clean our engine compartment. No problem at all and he ended up cleaning the entire car. Hope we’re over the worst of the dust….
At the factory we meet Jenk, a 40ish Turk with some English who tells us he spent 20 years living in Hamburg with his family. When his father lost his job, the family returned to Turkey but with no schooling in Jenk has found it difficult to get a good job. He does humanitarian work in Gaza. He says he has a friend at the tea factory close to our hotel and could arrange a factory tour for us.
Most of our group are keen to join the tour so at 3:00 pm we meet Jenk and the plant boss at the factory. From the street it looked fairly tired but inside it is humming with equipment to cut, dry, sort and bag the leaves. The plant has a capacity of 170 tons/day and the total production of the 46 factories in the Black Sea area is 7000 tons/day. After the tour we are invited to sample the tea – black with one cube to balance the tannin, it is fragrant and thirst-quenching.
Over tea they ask us what jobs we did in Australia and how can we afford a trip like this – not the first time this has been asked. Typical Turkish workers in this area earn 300-400 lire/month ($200 – 270) and can live reasonably well but could never afford a big holiday especially overseas.
Dinner at the other end of town this evening and another win. Their speciality is pilchards. Platefuls are brought to the table with salads and a bottle of raki – the Turkish version of ouzo. An instant hit.
June 15 Unye, Turkey
The drive around the Black Sea coast is another surprise. We had been expecting a two lane road with frequent stops through all the coastal towns. Instead there is a four lane highway with access to service lanes at each of the towns. No hold-ups at all and people seem to travel at 110 km/h or more totally ignoring the 90 km/h limit. At Trabzon we take a detour to the Sumela monastery which was founded in the 4th century. Built into an almost vertical cliff face it has been partially restored and despite all the graffiti, the wall and ceiling frescoes dating back to the 14th century are mostly intact. The weather has changed today and mist is swirling around the steep sides of the valley and intermittently hiding the monastery – very atmospheric.
Rather than returning to the coast along the same road we continue south for another 40 km and then turn back towards the coast on a smaller road past huge hydro dams. This is very rugged country with huge steep valleys and all the roads are beautifully engineered – a driver’s paradise. The MGs have to work hard spending most of the time at full throttle on the uphill bits sometimes for 20 km or more. It would be nice to have a bit more grunt.
Dave had tentatively booked a hotel in Sampsun but by 7:00 pm having covered over 500 km most have had enough so we find the Hotel Talip right on the water in Unye about 40 km past Ordu. Not four star but very comfortable and friendly. Simon negotiates a group rate – 50 lire for a single room. Fish of the day is trout – just the right size and beautifully cooked. Dinner followed by Turkish coffee costs 9 Lire – about $6 and they throw in the beach setting and water views for free. A bloke could live pretty well here.
June 16 Urgup, Turkey
A long drive today to Urgup in Cappadocia and true to the weather forecast the day starts with steady rain. Not much fun for Dave and Dan in the open car but it should be fine once we leave the coastal strip.
The road for the first 100 km is windy with repair patches on top of decades of old patches. Simon has a moment of excitement on a tight and slippery right-hander when he executes a neat 360 deg spin. Luckily plenty of spare road to recover without hitting anything and the following cars want to know whether they are supposed to copy the leader.
We try to find a couple of tourist sites en-route but there is no resemblance between the names of the sites marked on the map and the road signs. Press on to Urgup which at first glance appears to have discovered tourism big time. A couple of laps of the dinky little cobble-stone streets and we find Hotel Aruzun. Run by a very friendly family they stress that they cater for individuals and small groups like ours rather than the big tour companies. The father who looks to be in his 70s worked in Dortmund Germany for many years but became quite sick towards the end of his working life due to the heavily polluted air. His wife originally came from Urgup and they decided to build a hotel there to capitalise on the growing tourist trade. The hotel is now in the hands of the sons and is a real credit to their entrepreneurial skills. And the good news is that the father is now in robust health.
June 17 Urgup, Turkey
Up early for the mandatory balloon ride but its seems someone changed the arrangements and we are being picked up at 6:30 rather than 5:30 am. I had been woken by the 4:00 am call to prayer blaring outside my bedroom window and briefly thought of wandering down to the mosque to see whether anyone actually appears – but only briefly.
When our mini-bus crests the rise out of town there is the iconic sight from the Lonely Planet cover of about 60 balloons all in the air together with the castle of Cappadocia in the background. Truly an amazing sight.
The plan was for us to take the second flight for the morning and ‘our’ balloon is pointed out where it is ready to land on the other side of the valley. Then a slight change to the plan – rather than us being taken to where the balloon lands, it will be brought back to the starting point and reinflated for our flight so we get to see all the sights. Sounds good and all starts well with a few neat manoeuvres by the pilot just cresting rises by a metre or so, a light brush with one of the rock pinnacles and lots of oohs and aahs as we pass the rock formations. The flight is supposed to last an hour but by this time the wind is starting to pick up and all the other balloons have landed. We are scooting along and I ask whether everyone has their passports and visas for Syria. After a couple of failed attempts at landing the pilot decides on what looks like a disused gravel quarry. We get into landing positions again and the pilot’s off-sider tells us this could be a bit rough. It certainly was. The sandbag and rope the landing crew are supposed to catch is thrown out but there is no way they can hold it. The basket skates across the top of a rise and is then dragged on its side for a hundred metres or so with us trying to hang on. My head is jerked backwards about a metre and hits the back rail fairly violently. Everyone else is thrown around and we lie there waiting for the crew to sort out the tangle of bodies. One of the balloon company’s people who was also on board tells us she has been on hundreds of flights but this was her roughest landing by far. Poor Ian Besley is in a lot of pain and believes that his artificial hip has been dislocated. Denise is also very distressed. Ian asks me to pull his leg straight which seems to help and we keep them both warm and as comfortable as possible. An ambulance is called but cannot get into the remote spot so the crew carefully lift Ian onto a mattress and take him to the hospital in one of their 4WDs. A couple of hours later we get the report that all is well. The hip is back in place and Ian will be released later in the afternoon after observation. He will need a couple of days recuperation at least before he is ready to drive. Ian and Denise spoke very highly of the hospital and its medical staff and were obviously in good hands.
The rest of us went to a ‘cultural evening’ near town with the promise of whirling dervishes and Turkish dancing accompanied by local food and wine. It sounded promising but the ‘dervishes’ were a bit of a puzzle, the same chaps later in the evening were demonstrating folk dances from Azerbaijan when they were a little more convincing. Reg was a big hit with the belly dancer along with several other willing audience members – it seems raki is wonderful stuff for freeing up any lingering inhibitions. The food was barely passable and even Dave agreed the wine was undrinkable. The table of Japanese tourists next to us ordered three extra jugs – maybe this is a clue to solving the Aussie wine glut?
June 18 Urgup, Turkey
Another rest day and Ahmed, one of the hotel owners and also our self appointed tour guide has arranged a mini-bus to take us to the underground cities about 30 km south of Urgup. The first of the cities at Kaymakli is a labyrinth of rooms and connecting passages more than seven stories high where up to 2,000 Orthodox Greeks lived for months at a time when they were being persecuted by opposing religious groups around the 7th century. Some of the underground caves date back to the Hitites more then 4,000 years ago. What makes Cappadocia unique is the rock structure – relatively soft sedimentary sandstone originally capped by a layer up to several metres deep of hard volcanic basalt. In many places the basalt has eroded and once this happens the sandstone is also quickly eroded to leave a maze of ‘fairy chimneys’ and vertical cliff faces. These are ideal for tunnelling into to form the rooms and connecting tunnels. When the sandstone is dry it forms a reasonably durable skin for the inner walls and ceilings. The remaining basalt on top forms a roof to prevent rainwater from entering the underground spaces. Inside there are clever basalt rock ‘doors’ up to 2 metres in diameter which can be rolled into place to block the entrances and thwart intruders. The door tracks are sloped so one or two people can roll them into place quickly but from the other side it would have taken a huge and sustained effort to open them again. In and around the spaces is a complicated system of ventilation and drainage tunnels. This city also had seven winemaking areas to sustain the besieged troops in the manner to which they were accustomed. No wonder they didn’t want to capitulate to the Moslems.
The lunch stop was nearby in an idyllic garden setting. Shady fruit trees, green grass, excellent local food and good chilled white wine. We’ll have to send a correction to Lonely Planet who had a low opinion of the Cappadocian wine. They just didn’t go to the right places.
A few reflections on driving in Turkey before we head for the bustle of Istanbul. For whatever reason, my expectations were that the roads would be fairly crowded with many trucks, poorly surfaced and average speeds would be fairly slow in our underpowered cars. Almost the opposite experience. The roads are generally well surfaced and there has been almost no traffic – perhaps a result of the highly taxed fuel. Driving standards are high and apart from a complete disregard for speed limits, the drivers are quite disciplined. What we found really odd was that the country is serviced by one of the most extensive, modern and cleanest array of fuel stations anywhere in the world all with good loos!
June 19 Bolu, Turkey
A longish drive towards Istanbul via Aksaray and the ring road around Anakara to Bolu which is about 250 km east of Istanbul. Our plan was to leave just a short drive into Istanbul the next day which was a Sunday. We had no hotel booking so called into the first available place – it looked OK and at 40 TL (A$30) for a single room with breakfast included we looked no further.
By the time we were starting to think about what might be on the evening meal menu, a car with a trailer pulled up on the corner nearby. The trailer had a huge glass sided fish tank with dozens of trout swimming around happily. Little did they know how temporary was their happiness. Ordering a meal was simple and ten minutes later, plates of beautifully cooked trout arrived. Couldn’t get much fresher than that!
Ian B then had the good idea that we should service our cars right there in Bolu the next morning rather than struggle through Istanbul traffic to find somewhere. Plus it would give us more sightseeing time there. A quick chat with the friendly hotel manager resulted a few minutes later in the arrival of Ahmet Ozak at the hotel. Ahmet ran a service garage not too far away and yes, Ahmet would be happy for the cars to be serviced there. He would even let us use his hoists and do the servicing ourselves to avoid bringing his mechanics in on their day off. There was a complicated discussion about oil quality – did he have SG or SJ quality oil suitable for old cars? To sort that one out needed a trip to the garage so at 11 pm three of us bundled into Ahmet’s car with the hotel manager as interpreter. No problem, he had a huge stock of every conceivable oil including just what we needed. We could sleep easily.
June 20 Istanbul, Turkey
9:00 am and we are at Ahmet’s garage where the door is already open and he is there to greet us. It was in an area of Bolu almost exclusively occupied by small garages specialising in car stuff. Servicing, cleaning, doof-dooffing, anything you could imagine to do with cars, and all the lads were there with their wheels. Two hours later and all six cars had been serviced. A few little surprises with the wear and tear on most of the cars but no serious issues. Ahmet generously accepted 20 TL plus the cost of the oil for each of the cars.
As we were loading the cars back at the hotel, Saluk rocked up in his fairly mint 1959 Chev Impala. He and his friend were on their way to a classic car show nearby, saw our cars and wanted to chat. A very enthusiastic man who told us he also had a Mustang. He had no English and we had no Turkish so the only common language was classic cars. We were having trouble working out how someone could afford to drive a V8 Chev in a country where petrol costs around A$2.80 a litre. We had earlier had a discussion about the correlation between the quality of person’s shoes and the car they drove – one look at his shoes suggested he wouldn’t have much of a problem with the cost of petrol. After a good chat, he went off to his show with an appropriate level of wheel spin and V8 burble.
The run into Istanbul was surprisingly easy. Reg loaned us his Tom Tom which accepted the hotel address and took us through the maze of tiny one way streets in Sultanahmet just a stone’s throw from the Blue Mosque.
Lorraine had already arrived and checked in after her 9 day tour of Turkey so we have lots to talk about.
June 21 Turkey
We have just two days in Istanbul so today is going to be a free day for everyone to do their own thing. We decide to see the sights of Sultanahmet. Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Roman Cisterns are all open but Haighe Sofia is closed on Mondays. Guide books just don’t do justice to Istanbul, it really is the most amazing place. Even the Grand Bazaar which I imagined to be poky warren of down market stalls is much more up-market than expected. The best thing is that the sales people all have a sense of humour so you don’t feel too pressured or intimidated.
When we get back to the hotel we find that Dan has grabbed a flight home – there was a seat available with Etihad and no guarantees of seats on the following days so he took it. A pity because we all wanted to say goodbye. Dan had been a tremendous help to all of us with his amazing knowledge of MG foibles and willingness to dive under a car at the slightest suggestion of a problem. Hopefully the cars are pretty well de-bugged by now and will make it to the UK without his help.
June 22 Istanbul, Turkey
Our second full day in Istanbul and we are going to cruise the Bosphorus. Dave has an idea there is an even better bazaar on the Asian side so most of us decide to take a ferry to Beskitas. Amazing views of the bridge and ships criss-crossing the Bosphorus but not a bazaar in sight. Lonely Planet offers no suggestions so we hop on another ferry back to Sultanahmet where the Haighe Sofia is now open. This magnificent structure dates back to the 6th century. Originally built as an Orthodox Church it has stunning proportions and one of the largest domes even dwarfing St Pauls in London. Over its history there were extended periods when the church was damaged by earthquakes and war but unfortunately the Byzantine empire was too impoverished to carry out repairs. When Sultan Mehmed conquered Istanbul in the 15th century he saw the opportunity to rebuild the Haighe Sofia as a mosque and create a symbol of the growth of the Islamic empire. Since the 1930s it has been a museum with an impressive display of exhibits from its long history. Well worth seeing.
June 23 Eceabat, Turkey
We leave the Hotel Aziyade in Istanbul around 8 am and straight into peak hour traffic. Just one wrong turn and we had to go around the complete circuit again before getting onto the coast road heading for the airport and onward around the coast. Once on the cost road Tom Tom took over and we were heading for Eceabat and the Dardenelles on the Gallipoli peninsula. Our hotel in Eceabat was the basic back-packers set up. Basic but clean and run by Ramazan whose brother lives in Corowa. Every Turk has a relative living in Australia.
Dave had arranged for a guided tour of Anzac Cove with our guide who was very knowledgeable about the Gallipoli campaign and presented a balanced history from the ANZAC, English and Turkish perspectives. What became clear was that the story of this campaign was just as important to Turkish people as to Australians. M. Kemal, later known as Ataturk was a truly inspirational leader, not only of the soldiers in this campaign but afterwards as the leader of modern Turkey and the man who forged the path towards the secular society of modern Turkey.
June 24 Kavala, Greece
Travelled to Kavala across the border with Greece. As it turned out, our hotel was right at the freeway exit but because we had taken the scenic coast road we arrived right in the centre of town with no idea where to go. We asked the pizza shop man for directions and he insisted in jumping into his car and leading us on a wild ride up the steep hill roads before we finally found the right hotel. He had the most amazing stutter and spent 5 minutes telling us how happy he was to be able to help us because Greek people like to show their hospitality. We returned the favour later in the evening when we found that the hotel restaurant wasn’t actually operating so take out was the only option. The manager-come-barman who appeared to have a serious case of the DTs was extremely generous when pouring spirits. His version of a gin and tonic was 75% gin, 15% tonic and 10% ice. A good marketing strategy because we all ended up drinking more than we should and they sold a lot of drinks.
Over dinner we met Mary whose husband George wanted to just watch TV and she just wanted to make friends.
June 25 Edessa, Greece
Drove to Edessa to meet Elias, Tomas and Max from the MG Car Club of Greece. Dave was very anxious not to be late so we rushed to make the 12 noon appointment to find they were still 70 km away. They had driven 550 km from Athens in two MGBs with hoods off to make the lunch appointment so not a problem. They suggested a local restaurant in a garden setting right next to the waterfall cascading from the escarpment on which Edessa is built. A beautiful setting under mature plane trees. Everything is so lush and healthy looking in the northern part of Greece with abundant water to keep the gardens looking fantastic. They ordered salads and meat dishes for the table – the best meal we had eaten since the start of the trip. Lunch went on into the late afternoon so we decided to stay overnight in Edessa and catch up the next day.
Elias arranged accommodation in a couple of local pensiones. Ours had two large terraces looking over the escarpment into the valley where we watched the sun go down and the full moon rising. Very special.
The pensiones are both owned by one family who are leading an initiative to attract more tourists to Edessa. One could imagine this was what Tuscany looked like 40 years ago with just a few restored old houses and hotels but mostly pretty run down. Greece, especially this northern part has such a rich history together with all the attractions of good food and wine to provide excellent potential for tourism.
June 26 Schkoder, Albania
We farewelled our new friends with invitations to visit again and set off for the Macedonia border. Somehow Dave managed to make a wrong turn and the border didn’t appear as quickly as expected. When we finally arrived, the formalities were fairly easy although there was the usual confusion over what they had to do with the car carnets. From now on we decided not to show carnets but just try to get away with showing registration papers.
I had a minor drama at the morning’s fuel stop. Reg told me there was a loo around the back of the garage which I finally located after navigating my way around the undergrowth. I noticed a large dog chained up nearby but didn’t give it much of a thought until I was walking back and heard it barking and running towards me. It was still a few metres away so I decided to make a run for it in the hope it would run out of chain . I realised I had made a slight miscalculation when it made a lunge for the back of my leg. Not a nice feeling having the teeth of a large wolf like creature sinking his fangs in! The garage owner appeared very surprised and hauled out the first aid kit. We were a bit concerned when we got the message back from Bec that Greece is not listed as a rabies free country but when I inspected the material of the long pants I was wearing, the material wasn’t even punctured. Cross fingers and push on.
A few hours later we found ourselves on the left bank of a large lake. All along the road, young boys were selling fish and eels so we found a lakeside restaurant and enjoyed freshly caught (right in front of our eyes!) trout. Dave still appeared a bit confused about where we were but this was resolved when he asked the restaurant owner to confirm which was the Macedonian flag from his collection. Yes, this was the Macedonian flag but we were actually in Albania! Oh well, at least we saved ourselves one border crossing.
Albania turned out to be the most challenging country to drive through and we quickly understood why the Greeks put their cars on a ferry direct to Italy rather than driving through Albania. The drivers are even crazier than anyone in the ‘stans and the roads are a mixed bag. Later in the afternoon after passing through the capital Tirana, we found ourselves on a partly finished dual lane freeway. The only way of knowing which sections were one way and which were two way was to watch the other cars. If there were no oncoming cars in your lane and cars were travelling in the opposite direction on the other side of the median strip there was a fair chance it was divided highway. However sometimes you would find someone approaching you at over 100 km/h in your lane. Fortunately most drove with their headlights on so the technique seemed to be to watch the distance between the oncoming headlights and when it approximated the width between your headlights it was time to pull in. Avoiding oncoming cars by 2-3 metres seemed to be the norm. 1 metre was cutting it a bit fine. .
If there was any need for evidence of the dangers of driving in Albania you only needed to look at the number of car wrecking yards. They were everywhere along the major roads and not just cars, there were whole areas of wrecked trucks. Second-hand Benzes are the car of choice for an Albanian and there were whole yards just devoted to them.
The other weird observation was the number of car washes, especially just after roadworks. On one stretch there were dozens of young guys each with a hose blasting water into the air or across the road to advertise their services. Of course, a few kms down the road there were more roadworks so you needed to stop and wash the car again. Obviously no water shortages in Albania.
Earlier in the day we had crossed a rugged mountain range and for what seemed like about 10 km we drove along the ridge top itself with fantastic views and precipitous drops sometimes on both sides at once as we crossed over the saddles. Probably much better to be a passenger than a driver so you could enjoy the views.
We stayed at the 5 star Grand Hotel in Schkoder. In the morning the hotel staff wanted to know if everything was working in the room. I told them that apart from the shower which flooded the room and the lights which could only be switched off by pulling the plugs from the wall because all the switches were faulty everything was fine. Oh, and the internet didn’t work. Living standards looked a lot better than other parts of Albania but the city was still recovering from devastating floods in February and many of the footpaths and roads had collapsed. It must be tough to live in a country which isn’t part of a major trading bloc and does its best to tread an independent line. You need friends when disasters strike.
June 27 Dubrovnic, Croatia
The road out of Shkoder looked like a major highway on the map but turned out to be a narrow rutted minor road winding through small villages. At Tuzi we stopped to get a coffee. It was Sunday morning and all the women and girls were dressed in the best clothes heading for church. The men were either sitting in one of the many bars having a beer or coffee or standing on the footpath just watching the girls go by. It seemed like a movie set, everyone seemed expressionless, not threatening but also not friendly. They obviously didn’t get many visitors. We broke the ice by walking into one of the shops and seeing the Rancilio coffee machine we asked for cappuccinos. The guy behind the machine gave the impression this wasn’t on his CV but another who spoke a little English said this was no problem and quickly produced capuccinos all round.
Shortly after leaving the village we crossed into Montenegro – the easiest border crossing so far. No hassles with carnets, all we had to do was pay 15 Euro for third party insurance.
First views of the Adriatic were magnificent and it just got better. The recommendation was to take the scenic route around the Bay of Kotor. In some places this was a one way road and certainly not a road to rush as there were people everywhere. The views across the bay were picture-perfect at every turn. This beats every other part of the Mediterranean Coast hands down.
The border crossing into Croatia was very easy – again no problems with an Australian passport and no hassles with the cars.
The road coming into Dubrovnic from the south was spectacular and made even better by the sun shining through a gap in the dark clouds onto the sea just near the city. We’ll have to make the trip back up the road tomorrow just to take it all in again.
June 28 Dubrovnic, Croatia
A free day to explore Dubrovnic so up early to get in before the tourist buses arrived. By 10:00 am the old city was full of people and the two km walk around the city walls was elbow to elbow with tourists of every nationality. Apart from Istanbul our trip has been almost tourist-free so this is a bit of a shock. We are told it is also a shock to the locals, many of whom move out for six months each year. The most amazing sight is to see the new red roofs of the old city from the towers located around the city walls. Around 70% of the roofs were destroyed during the shelling of Dubrovnic from 1991 – 94. This must have been one of the most pointless exercises in the history of this region. Bosnia and Montenegro joined forces with the objective of forcing Dubrovnic to become part of Montenegro, however fewer than 6% of the residents were of Bosnian background and virtually none were from Montenegro. Without local support the effort was doomed from the beginning.
June 29 Split, Croatia
Left early to tour the 250 km coast road north to Split. This is just as impressive as the road into Dubrovnic from the south. Fantastic coastal views at every turn, a well surfaced and engineered road, few cars and to cap it off, bright sunshine. Absolutely perfect! Other well known coastal roads such as Highway 101 from LA to San Francisco and our Great Ocean Road are not even remotely in the race by comparison.
Ken had a bad start to the day with a repeat of the fuel pump problems. He bit the bullet and decided to fit an electronic pump like the rest of the cars. Fortunately he managed to coast to a stop where he could get off the road and under some shade. Peter and Kerith stayed with them and we all met up again a few kms before Split.
Another tourist city although here they don’t outnumber the locals. We did have a little drama finding a hotel. The first one on the list from the internet had been pulled down three years ago and was just a shell. We are fairly used to plumbing not working but this place didn’t even have walls. The next was fully booked and referred us to another nearby. Dave and I did our best to negotiate a reasonable room rate and failed miserably. Sue offered to try again so we wished her luck. She does a good line pretending to be a ditzy blonde and it worked perfectly – and she wasn’t even a blonde until recently!
June 30 Rijeka, Croatia
Today our drive continues along the Dalmation Coast about 450 km to Rijeka. Soon after leaving Split we come to a surprise border crossing. It turns out that somewhere in all the deals struck after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia negotiated a short stretch of access to the Adriatic Sea – was it the consolation prize for missing out on Dubrovnic?. In any case it doesn’t look like the best piece of the coast and doesn’t have a sheltered harbour so they didn’t get much of a deal. Soon we are back in Croatia again and getting closer to the EU. The standard and density of beach housing along with the number of luxury yachts moored in beautiful harbours is definitely on the increase. The smell of serious money is in the air. Around Zadar, the road leaves the coast and continuing our policy of avoiding motorways/autoroutes whenever possible we find ourselves heading north on an almost deserted two lane road on a progressively more barren peninsula. Dave is trusting his Tom Tom and later admitted he had no idea where he was but luckily Lorraine is reading the map in our car so at least two of us knew where we were. There is literally no animal life and almost no plant life on the peninsula after lunch at Pag but at some time in the past the locals built an amazing grid of dry-stone walls with many of the walled areas less than an acre in area. What were they doing we all wondered? The peninsula ended abruptly at a ferry terminal and a few minutes later we were on our way back to the mainland and another fantastic piece of road hugging the coast towards Rijeka. Unfortunately we had to share it with all the other cars coming off the ferry but at least they maintained a good pace to keep us entertained.
We decided not to stay in the centre of Rijeka but aim for a spot a few kms the other side so we would get a good start the next morning. Dave with his uncanny good luck managed to navigate us to the ritziest part of town in the up-market resort of Opatija. This was where the Hapsburgs holidayed when they still had money and influence.
July 1 Brescia, Italy
This was to be a quick run across the top of Italy towards Brescia where we are to meet Fabbio, the President of the MG CC of Italy. We are also meeting up with two other MGs driven across from the UK to accompany us on the final leg.
What a complete contrast to the past few days on the Dalmation Coast. This was full-on Italian autostrada with wall-to-wall trucks and an endless stream of cars all wanting to go faster than the 130 km/h posted speed limit. Unfortunately the Slater’s car is fitted with a Stanza 5 speed box which has a 1:00 to 1 fifth gear instead of the normal overdrive so at only 110 km/h he is already pulling around 4500 rpm. Ken didn’t get a chance to drive the car on freeways before he left so didn’t find this out until the car was in China. At 110 km/h we were somewhat quicker than the trucks but seriously in danger of being run over by most of the cars. Eyes constantly on the mirrors and weaving in and out to keep the speed up meant there was little time to admire the scenery. Not a big loss as it isn’t the most exciting part of Italy.
For me it was interesting to contrast the range of cars with those I remember from my first time on this autostrada in 1971. In those days the tolls were graduated so small cars got an excellent rate and bigger capacity cars heavily penalised. A rather crazy system because the autoroutes were full of Fiat 500 and 600s travelling flat out at 80 km/h with just the occasional Alfa and Lancia travelling at more than twice that. Now the tolls are the same for all cars and it seems Italians prefer German cars. Most are Benzes, BMWs and Audis while Fiat and Lancia models are now in the minority. Japanese and Korean cars are still rare in Italy. In a country which was once known for its love of cars it was interesting that our cars hardly rated a moment’s glance from most of the passers-by.
July 2 Brescia, Italy
Our first day in Brescia, the home of the legendary Mille Miglia. Lorraine and I feel quite at home because our daughter, Rebecca, spent a year here in 1998 as an exchange student and we enjoyed visiting here and meeting her friends at the time.
Last evening we had met Mike and Lou Brett, Dave’s South African friends who have just purchased an MGB GT V8 and also Vin Rafter, a Yorkshireman who is on an “Escape the Wife Tour” in his MGA.
Fabbio has arranged a visit to the Mille Miglia museum on the outskirts of Brescia. The museum was founded by a group of local enthusiasts who began to archive all the documentation of the races first run in 1927. After a series of tragic accidents in the late 1950s the format was changed to a series of special stages totalling about 80 km instead of the previous flat out road race over 1000 miles. Excellent story boards translated into English tell how the four founders from Brescia developed the original format and made the race such a success. For many, including me, the most famous Mille Miglia was in 1955 when Stirling Moss won with journalist Dennis Jenkinson as navigator reading pace notes written on a roll of paper – the first recorded use of pace notes. Moss won at an average speed of just over 100 mph travelling virtually non-stop over the mix of country roads and through many cities and small villages. An amazing feat.
Next was a visit to the Monza F1 circuit which is in a suburb of Milan, about one hour to the west of Brescia. The drive along the congested autostrada in 35 deg humid weather was all worthwhile when we arrived at Monza. With mature trees, parklands and grand villas all around it is a world apart from the barren race circuits we are more familiar with. There we met a couple of MG members from Milan, Ernesto and Andreas, who turned up in a very tidy 1968 BRG MGB. The lure for us was the possibility of a few laps of the circuit in our cars and Ernesto kept disappearing to talk to the right people to see what could be organised. Finally we got the word that the hardtop cars could drive as many laps as they could in ten minutes starting at 3:30 pm. Bad luck for Dave and Vin in their open MGAs but good for Reg and me with our GT models.
As an introduction we filled in the usual disclaimers, with an uneducated guess of our insurance details which we had left safely back at the hotel, and then drove out to the original but now disused banked circuit. Everyone was amazed at the steepness of the banking so we got some good shots of the cars under the overhanging trees. Then the moment arrived and Reg and I lined up at the entrance to the F1 circuit with Dave and Mike as passengers suitable equipped with video cameras and brave pills. The circuit is virtually unchanged from the 1950s except for the addition of two chicanes to slow the cars towards the end of the two straights. Reg lead for the first lap around the famous corners, Lesmo, Ascari, Parabolica, with the MGs flat out almost the whole way around except for the chicanes. He motioned me through on the second lap and Dave got some good video footage of our car from behind. An F1 could have completed six laps in the 10 minutes allowed but we were happy to get in three laps before the hands started waving to pull in. Very exhilarating. At the exit, there were about a dozen modern Ferrraris waiting to be let in for their hot laps. We stopped to take a few more photos and they headed into the circuit one after the other. As each crossed the entrance line they all hit wide open throttle – a bit more impressive than an MGB exhaust especially when their bypass valves opened.
By the time we battled the stop-start peak hour on the autostrada back to Brescia we were pretty tired but there was more. Fabbio had organised a bus to take us all to dinner at an agri-turismo restaurant on Lago di Garda. There was a bit of a stuff-up with the bus and it didn’t turn up until about 9:00 pm so we finally arrived for drinks well after dark. No-one seemed too fazed and every course of locally produced food was just delicious. The family who run the restaurant also produce local wines and olive oil. They started the business about 30 years ago and just kept adding to it. Back to the hotel by 1:15 am and Dave is telling us we have an early start again for the drive over the alps to Switzerland. And I thought this was going to be the easy part of the trip.
July 3 Chur, Switzerland
Sure enough an early start and we manoeuvre our cars out from the garage being careful not to scratch the Ferrari 250 GT parked alongside or the 1948 Bandini or the pre-war Riley parked nearby. The driver of the Bandini told us the Ferrari was worth about 2.5 mill Euro or roughly 400 MGBs. Scary stuff and he hadn’t even done a good job of sticking his ‘Mini Mille Miglia’ decals on. Simon would not have been impressed.
The route took us along the east bank of Lago d’Iseo, up a couple of passes on the Italian side before starting the ascent of the famous Stelvio Pass. This is without doubt the most impressive of the passes between Italy and Switzerland so we had to share it with about a million bikers and intrepid cyclists who must have also heard of its fame. Not a problem, everyone behaved themselves although many of the bikes pulled some pretty impressive passing moves.
At the top of Stelvio, Dave got word that Dominic from the Swiss MG CC was not going to be able to meet us at the scheduled time because his MGA had been attacked by a merging car. The police had been called and Dominic was completely cleared, just a little late.
Further down we finally catch up with Dominic and his slightly bent MGA. Dominic was born in Switzerland, grew up in England and then returned to Switzerland where he has lived for seventeen years. His passion is his MGA which has an original US designed Judson supercharger and a five speed Sierra gearbox like Dave’s. Dave met Dominic at Silverstone in 2005 and he and Laurel visited him when they were touring Switzerland in 2008.
Unfortunately the MGA sounds as if it has has also run a big end bearing so it is trucked back to Zurich and Dominic becomes a passenger with Vin. An unlikely pair; Vin the ex-roofer with an almost unintelligible Yorkshire dialect and a very entertaining stand-up patter and Dominic the very precise and well organised Swiss. They quickly become great mates. Later we hear from Dominic that the noise was due to a broken crankshaft caused by the pulley hitting the cross-member in the accident. Amazing it was still running at all. Tough cars these MGs!
July 4 Interlaken, Switzerland
Dominic has organised a tour through some of the best Swiss passes after leaving our hotel in Chur. First there is a drive through the valley to Glarus where we meet another eight couples from the MG CC. Werner, the President is there with his immaculate TC. Werner worked with Castrol in Switzerland and when it became obvious that his company was to be merged with BP he put in an offer for the TC which was owned by the company. There were also TFs and MGAs, each in beautiful condition as one would imagine in a country where there is not a blade of grass out of place and the trains run on time.
The Klausen and Susten passes are both very spectacular, narrower roads than Stelvio and fortunately not quite as popular with the bikers so we had a great run. I did keep wishing the B had another gear between 2nd and 3rd – a modern 6 speed box would have been magic.
With all his accumulated knowledge of MG cooling systems, Peter could now turn his attention to Mike’s V8 which overheated on all the up hill bits and then ran out of brakes downhill. In fact a number of the Bs suffered brake problems – both Peter and Ian B ran out of brakes which made the downhill runs entertaining. CH2LON developed a brake squeal again but the brake performance was excellent and the pads still almost new when they were checked that evening.
A long drive and we got into our guest house in Wilderswill around 7 pm. Entry to the guest house was over (through?) an old roofed bridge but this one had been skillfully modified. It looked original but the structure had been modified so the entire centre section could be raised around one metre at the same time lifting a set of flood control gates. Damn clever these Swiss. A great location close to Interlaken and also to the train line ready for the next day’s adventures.
July 5 Interlaken, Switzerland
Dominic has arranged for tickets on the Jungfraubahn rail system to take us from our guest house in Wilderswill to the top viewing point of the big three mountains in Switzerland: Eiger, Moench and Jungfraujoch. The forecast is for clear sunny weather so this should be pretty special. The return train journey takes around 5 hours with the first leg taking us through the valley to Grindelwald. The next two legs are on cogged railways with the last well above the snow line being mostly through a steep tunnel. A little disorienting but we finally get to the viewing point, walk through the Ice Palace which is carved through the glacier and then out into the promised bright sunshine to see the three peaks. There was some cloud swirling around the peaks but this only made them look more spectacular. From here you could also look down the glacier where parties of intrepid skiers were heading back towards Grindelwald. From above we could see many deep crevices in the glacier surface three metres or more wide. They would be hard to see from the surface of the glacier so skiers need to go with an experienced guide and be roped together in case someone slips.
Peter, Kerith, Lorraine and I decide to walk the middle leg back from Kleine Scheidegg to Grund. Great views but very steep and we cop out about half an hour from the finish and catch the train for the last stop. I leave my camera behind on the windowsill at the station and only realise when we are a few hundred metres down the hill. No way to stop the train so we plan to catch the next train back up and fingers crossed no-one has pocketed it in the mean time. When we reach Grund, we find the next and last train for the day is still an hour away so we chat to the ticket lady who agrees to arrange for the conductor of the next down train to look for the camera. Imagine trying to do that on Melbourne’s public transport system. When the train rolls in I find the conductor but she has bad news, no camera on the windowsill. Just when we are giving up hope, the ticket lady calls out to me that one of the passengers picked up the camera and has handed it in. Very honest lot and a big sigh of relief.
July 6 Lausanne, Switzerland
A fairly relaxed start today for the shortish run to Lausanne. Tom Tom is up to its usual tricks with Dominic navigating in Dave’s car so we find some progressively narrower lanes after leaving Lake Thun to the west of Interlaken. What look suspiciously like private driveways finally lead us to the Jaun Pass. Only about 1600 m but very pretty winding up through a succession of farms. Dominic wants to use this route for an MG run later in the year so he claims he wasn’t lost after all. Around lunchtime we arrive at a restaurant where we meet Dani and Raymond. Dani Ingold is the owner of the most impressive fleet of MGs in Switzerland and we are going to see them this evening. He is driving a late model MGF, one of only four built to a specification drawn up by Gerry McGovern, the MGF designer. We discover later that Dani runs a very successful model making business which he inherited from his father. Mainly very serious model trains in all sizes from miniature ride-on models down to 1:32 scale.
Fondue is on the menu this evening so a light salad for lunch and we head off for the first stop at a restaurant for a winetasting above the vineyards looking over Lake Geneva. The entire coast of villages and vineyards are UNESCO heritage protected so this is a pretty special part of the world. From here we get instructions on the next part of the route which follows the lake shore around to Lausanne itself. We are going to drive through the narrow vineyard lanes made famous in the James Bond movie Goldfinger – must get the DVD out when we get home.
Lausanne is one of the most expensive cities in one of the most expensive countries in Europe so Dave had us booked into the youth hostel. We were sure there were prisons with less dreary finishes but at least it was clean and everything worked. Dani picked us up at 6:30 pm and we were off to the Chateau overlooking Lausanne and Lac Le Man which only recently is allowed to be called the name we all know, Lake Geneva. A bit of inter-city rivalry apparently.
The evening starts with the fondue meal at a restaurant looking over Lausanne. Great views but a good reminder of why the fondue craze only lasted a year or so in Australia. Everyone still seems to have a fondue set tucked away in the back cupboard but somehow they never get used. Then it is off to see Dani’s MG collection in a private lock-up in his apartment garage. How impressive! The collection starts with the M type which won the 12 hour race at Brooklands then moves on to a J2, TC, TD, TF, MGA Twin Cam (no. 9) and a ZB. He has personally restored every car except the TD which is totally original. Every car is absolutely perfect in every detail as befits a master model maker. What is even more amazing is that he has a similar collection of Triumphs in a separate garage plus another garage no-one is supposed to know about which houses some seriously exotic cars.
July 7 Lausanne, Switzerland
Woke up feeling totally exhausted and don’t even feel like eating – it has all caught up with me! Decided to focus on the drive to Nevers in France and give food a miss. Dave in his ever playful manner disregarded maps and Tom Tom directions and sped off down every minor goat track so by mid-afternoon Lorraine and I split and took the main road for Nevers and a bed where I slept for 12 hours. Lorraine is demonstrating she is a much better navigator than anyone with a Tom Tom so I am happy to trust her directions.
July 8 Nevers, France
Woke up feeling much better and ready for a good breakfast. We are leaving late today in the hope that Mike and Lou will catch up with us after their forced stop and tow to the nearest town many miles back. We take the opportunity to walk around the old town of Nevers. What a change from the usual over restored tourist town. Lots of old shops and residences ageing gracefully. People sitting having a morning coffee before wandering off to work. No-one in a hurry.
We get away around 10:30 and take a fairly direct route to Richelieu where we are to meet Dave’s friend Robert. This was a result of another of Dave’s chance meetings – in this case, he and Laurel had met Robert and Emerkee, a Dutch couple, in a restaurant in Vienna in 2005. They got chatting and later Dave and Laurel assisted their son Eddy to come to Australia for six months work experience. Robert and Emerkee have restored a chateau at Artigny near Richelieu and extended an invitation to “come and visit with your friends” so Dave took them at their word and invited the whole team.
We had seen pictures of the chateau but the reality was even more impressive. The original section was built in the 15th century and and the front tower with three levels of bedrooms dating from the 18th century. An overgrown ruin when they bought it 9 years ago it is now fully restored in totally original style. No Grand Designs modern interiors here although the scope of the restoration was on the same scale. The chateau still has 25 acres of adjoining forest and orchard surrounded by a fairly intact stone wall. Don’t even think about the restoration and maintenance bills!
Robert and Emerkee are the perfect hosts so we are soon cooling off with beers and rose within minutes of arriving. Just after sunset, there is a big thunderstorm which comes right across us – no direct hits but some came close. The whole effect is like something out of an Agatha Christie story and when their daughter Liz and her friend Beatrice arrive during another thunderstorm a few hours before sunrise we are waiting for the screams.
July 9 Chateau Artigny, France
A rest day at the Chateau so the car gets a much needed wash and we get to check out the local supermarket. A supermarket is probably not the right place to buy great cheeses and bread but they do a much better job than the equivalent Aussie supermarket. A cheese section the size of an average shop, fruit and vegetables with flavour and great breads. Why don’t Australians insist on the same quality from our supermarkets?? Talking with Robert later we find out the secret of these French supermarkets. They are allowed to build in the local communities but the deal is that the local shops get the franchise for the bakery, fruit, vegetable and meat counters so all the produce is local. Seems like a win-win to me.
In the afternoon we head into Chinon but it is so hot we have to stop for liquids every half hour. We later learn it is 39 deg in Paris and the hottest summer spell on record. The interior of the MG feels around 20 deg warmer than ambient so we’re sweating faster than we can take it in.
July 10 Chateau Artigny, France
Saturday and it’s the weekend of Classic Le Mans. Held every two years this is the premier classic car race weekend for France and everyone turns out with their race or road cars. We have an invitation from the MG Car Club of France to display our cars in their enclosure and enjoy their hospitality tent. Driving towards the circuit is already amazing because every second car is something exotic. Ferraris, Aston Martins, Porsches everywhere. When we finally get to the nominated gate there is no-one to meet us so we get to watch the passing parade. Our new friends from the Swiss MG CC come through the gate and offer to hurry things up. Finally our tickets arrive but there is a problem, there are not enough car passes. Dave is on top of it and gets the man on the gate to scan all the passes and then we rush through hoping that he isn’t counting.
The hospitality tent is offering pastis (French version of ouzo/raki and even better) or rose. Logic would say that you shouldn’t drink alcohol when it is already over 35 deg and you are planning to spend all day in the sun but hey, how many chances does one get to enjoy a day like this?
Suitably primed, we look at all the eye candy (cars, that is) eat lots of ice cream and other good stuff and then head for the main straight to watch the preparations for the racing which is to start at the traditional time of 4:00 pm. Porsche are celebrating 40 years since their first win at Le Mans so there is a parade of every Porsche model which has ever competed there, many driven by original drivers.
At the appointed hour, the cars in the 1950s to 60s group are all lined up against the pits with their drivers on the other side of the track. The flag is dropped and they sprint for their cars. First away is a Lotus 11 – blowed if I know how he could drop himself into the cockpit and get away so quickly. This is just a warm-up lap, unlike the original event, so the cars form themselves up in grid order so when they come around again they are ready to race. Serious stuff with a Ferrari leading followed by a Type 61 ‘birdcage’ Maserati, a Lister Jaguar and the Lotus 11. Lots of very quick Healeys give the Aston Martins and Jags a hard time. All very spectacular and well organised.
It would have been great to stay all night but by around 6:00 we are ready for the three hour drive back to Artigny.
July 12 Chateau Artigny, France
Destination Paris and the official end of the ‘Peking to Paris’ leg of our adventure. Mona and Rod from the MGCC of France have offered to meet us on the outskirts of Paris and guide us to a few good photo locations. We had met Mona at Le Mans but this was our first meeting with Rod – another expat Brit and currently looking for an MGB GT so very interested in our cars. Why do we meet so many Brits living in France and there are no French in the UK. Silly question really.
Despite good intentions of arriving early, it is around noon when we get into Paris but fortunately it is Sunday and school holidays so traffic is fairly light and all the Parisians have escaped to somewhere cool and/or wet. One lap around Concorde and we are heading up Champs Elysees where we manage to regroup after getting seriously separated. Dave is following Rod’s car but his two-radio is once again almost out of batteries and he doesn’t have an antenna so reception is very patchy. For anyone intending to do this sort of group event, a two-way radio with a 5-10 km range is absolutely. We park illegally against the kerb and get some good shots with the Arc de Triomphe in the background. Aussies and other tourists are very excited to see our convoy. The locals couldn’t care less and toot and wave their arms because we are blocking their path.
A couple of laps around the Arc without hitting anyone. There is a special 50/50 rule which means that blame is shared equally in the case of an accident at the Arc so we are pretty keen to avoid scrapes. Park beside the curb at the Arc itself for a few more shots then off to Foch’s statue where we find a park in the tow-away zone with the Tower in the background. This is such a great spot to park the cars in front of one of the icons of Paris and Sue has pre-arranged with a photographer friend, Victoria, who just happens to be holidaying in France to meet us there. Victoria fires off about 200 shots with her Nikon. Hopefully she can cope with the backlighting better than our little cameras. First with the cars parked parallel to curb and then with them all reversed to the curb at 45 deg. This proves so popular that soon there are another half dozen locals parked the same way alongside us. We think about getting some paint to mark the spots permanently. Impressed with our audacity, we decide to leave the cars there and have lunch across the road. An hour or so later we amble back and there is a chap in a Moke taking a keen interest in the cars. We gather he is a journalist looking for a story so everyone is happy and after another hour or so we head off with Vin going back to the UK, Dave and Ken deciding to spend the evening with their wives in Paris and the rest of us heading back to the Chateau. Sue was looking forward to a romantic dinner with Ken but her hopes were dashed when he realised it was the evening of the World Cup final so he was going to lock himself in the hotel. We saw the same event with our Netherland-born hosts who were a bit disappointed with their team’s 1-nil loss to Spain. Off to bed and everyone apart from the Netherlanders sleep well.
July 12 Chateau Artigny, France
Catch up on the washing and a visit to the chateau at Usse. Another beautiful chateau, this one still in private hands. The towers and maze of tiny room were used to good effect to show off the Sleeping Beauty story.
July 13 Chateau Artigny, France
A quiet day visiting the chateau at Azay-Le-Rideau. Not much to say, just another gorgeous piece of French architecture with a reflective lake to give double value.
July 14 Chateau Artigny, France
Bastille Day and the rain starts falling at breakfast time just as we are planning to head to Amboise where there is a flea market and chateau. Emerkee, Laurel and Dave are already there to catch the bargains but call us shortly after we are on the road to say the market is washed out. We head for Chinon and a coffee to wait out the storm and watch the celebrations in Paris on the cafe’s telly. Sarkozy looks very smug for a man battling allegations of serious financial irregularities and everyone else just looks soggy. Oh, and Carla just tries to look gorgeous.
The rain is still falling and we decide to head for the Chinon ‘fortress’ but manage to translate a sign saying it is closed until next week. By good fortune we meet an English chap (just how many Poms live around here??) who suggests we go to Montsoreau about 15 km downstream where there is another chateau and good restaurants. A great suggestion as the chateau has a good history of the river trade on the Loire river system. Over lunch we hatch a plan to hijack the centre square where there is a statue and lots of French flags. We only have three cars today, blue, white and red, a ready made tri-colour – how good is that. Dave isn’t with us to be outrageous so we more timid souls decide to start by parking the cars across the road in colour order to match the flags and then one-by-one back them between the bollards into position below the statue and flags. This means reversing over a 15 cm curb while missing the bollards – just possible in a narrow MGB. All goes well and quite a few locals get the joke. Not a gendarme in sight although we find them on the way out of town doing breath tests. Good thing we didn’t order the second bottle of Rose.
July 15 Caen, France
Our last full day in France so we head towards Caen and the ferry terminal ready for an early start next morning.
In the evening the size of our group seemed to completely overwhelm the Crocus Hotel catering facilities. The poor waiter had to keep coming out to report all the dishes which were off the menu or in limited supply – fortunately he had a good sense of humour so we didn’t give him too hard a time. A few meals started arriving after 40 minutes or so and they didn’t look good. Lorraine decided her moule et frite was dodgy – more like micromoule and a few failed the freshness test in her book. My micromoule tasted fine although the energy intake was well and truly offset by the energy expended in opening about 100 of the little critters. Others were more critical of their meals and some just failed to turn up at all so Ian Besley suggested to the waiter that the chef should come out so we could cut his throat. The waiter agreed that was a good plan but asked that we wait a week or two so they could find another.
July 16 Portsmouth UK
We were booked on the 8:30 am ferry and Dave had the idea that we only needed to be there 30 minutes beforehand because otherwise we would sit in a queue for ages. We convinced him that 45 minutes would be safer but as we were ready to leave the drizzle turned to heavy rain and Dave messed about putting covers over his luggage and drying his seats. There was no way he was ever going to erect the top on the ‘A’. He convinced us he knew the route but just after leaving the hotel he pulled one of his famous U-turns when the sign didn’t seem right. We finally made it to the ferry among the very last cars and drove straight on so he was lucky once again.
The trip itself was very easy – a little over 5 hours but very smooth and the services on board were excellent.
As promised there was an entourage of MG people to meet us at Portsmouth and they lead us to the Seacrest Hotel on the waterfront. Very handy as I’m sure our Tom Toms would have failed the multiple roundabout test. Despite the warm welcome, I’m sure we all felt a little flat about arriving in England. No more challenges with the language and our adventure was about to end.
July 17 Abingdon, UK
More MGs arrived in the morning and hotel lounge was full of people who had come to congratulate our achievement and drive with us to Abingdon – the ancestral home of MG. We not only met the MG folks but also people like David Spurling who is a serial offender when it comes to taking on challenging events in his Morgan. Not only has he completed the real Peking to Paris but also a Dakkar Rally and many other events. Quite an amazing man. We also met Neil Pocock who recently completed a solo trip around the world in an MG Midget. UK to India by road then ship to Perth where he completed a loop of Australia followed by NZ. He then shipped the car to the very bottom of South America and drove to Newfoundland from where the car was shipped back home. In total 39,000 miles or three times the distance of our trip. Very impressive.
We are booked into the Dog House Inn a few miles out of Abingdon and learn that this was Cecil Kimber’s favourite watering hole. Kimber was the man who had the vision of turning basic Morris vehicles into sports cars starting in 1927 and lead the company right through until the beginning of the 2nd World War. His enthusiasm in taking on war time projects to keep the factory going lead to his undoing. By this time, MG had been taken over by Morris Motors and their wartime contracts executive took exception to Kimber’s initiative to use the skills of the MG technicians to assemble a complex aircraft cockpit assembly. He was forced to resign – just one of the many setbacks that MG suffered over many years of unsympathetic corporate ownership. The Dog House was originally the Greyhound Inn but the nickname given by the MG factory test drivers who used the stretch of road to road test every production car has stuck. We were surprised and a little disappointed that there is no recognition anywhere in the hotel of its links to MG.
July 18 Abingdon, UK
The Abingdon Works Centre who effectively run all MG Club activities in the area have organised a display of our cars in the Abingdon town square so we roll up early and park the cars. Not only are there many MG club members and enthusiasts there but also many people associated with the Abingdon Plant until its closure in 1980. Don Hayter, the designer of the original MGB who later became Chief Engineer right through to the end of production was there and I enjoyed a long chat with him. He told me the original plan was to reskin the MGA carrying over the old chassis but this was replaced by what was in hindsight a much better plan to adopt a unit body construction. Don’s direction from his management was to “make it strong” so he did. The caning our cars took was evidence that he had achieved his objective and the MGB proved to be the highest volume sports car of its time. The last run of 16 protoypes were fitted with injected 2.0 litre ‘O’ series engines and were capable of 116 mph but by this time the British Leyland senior management was dominated by ex-Triumph people who made the decision to end production and focus on Triumph models. A dumb decision in many people’s eyes at the time and certainly in hindsight considering the comparative strength of the two brands.
This evening there is a dinner at the Dog House Inn with a speech from Dave and an excellent slide show by Sue highlighting some of our adventures to the 30 or so visitors. Ex-principals seem to have a great way with words. I have a good chat with Brian Moylan who was a mechanic with MG for 30 years, mostly in the Competition Department. This group was not only responsible for MG’s successes at Le Mans and Sebring but later with big Healeys and then Minis at Monte Carlo and other European rallies. Key to their success were their drivers. I asked him how BMC had been successful in enlisting the talents of the flying Finns, Altonen and Makinen to support Hopkirk. According to Brian, the Finns made the first approach because they wanted to be with a winning team and it turned out to be a winning combination especially when they applied their skills driving on loose surfaces to the Cooper S. Brian is also the author of an authoritative book on the history of Abingdon Plant so I now have a signed copy.
July 19 Longbridge, UK
The last day of our trip and we are off to the Longbridge plant near Birmingham – the new home of MG. Dave decides there is time to call in at Bleinheim Palace where his father worked for a time and also Stratford-on-Avon. Unbelievable holiday traffic clogged the entire town so all we saw were the loos at the railway station for a much needed pitstop and then a rush to Longbridge for the official welcome. Amazingly and without much help from Tom Tom, we were only ten minutes late so the welcome party was still there with the chequered flag and official photographer. There we were welcomed by Guy Jones, the Sales and Marketing Director together with William, the chief from Shanghai Automotive. Hard to think of another car company which would make a serious effort to welcome a group of old fogies and their partners who had decided to test their skills in driving 40 or 50 year old models half way around the world but this is probably what sets MG apart. Guy later shared his thoughts with me on how MG need to position themselves to attract new owners and how they balance this with the legacy of the thousands of enthusiasts around the world who still enjoy their old MGs. An interesting challenge and one we all hope they will work out.
July 22 Farewell
Time to say a temporary farewell to CH2LON. We have organised container shipping for three of the cars, Red, Yellow and Blue through Freightnet Vic who managed the shipping to China. Our original plan was to ship the cars back roll-on/roll-off but the horror stories of pilfering lead us back to containerisation, especially when we discovered that three MGBs will fit end-to-end in a 40’ container. The only catch was that Yellow car was a rubber bumper model and the additional length left only 60mm free space in total between the cars – too little to avoid the risk of contact according to the shippers. Easily fixed, the front rubber bumper is secured by just four bolts and removes about 150mm. Not huge but just enough to satisfy the shipper.
By the time all the paperwork was finished and the money handed over it was pouring with rain – an appropriate way to farewell our faithful friend from London. I’m sure it will be sunny in Melbourne when CH2LON arrives early October. (postscript – it wasn’t!)
A short cab ride to nearby London City Airport and the Avis desk where I am given the keys to a fridge-white Skoda Fabia. What an incredibly boring car! No rattles, no exhaust note, no steering feel, no performance and zero personality. Uggh. Bring on the next adventure!!