How it started.
It all started at Easter 2003 at Donington when the British members of the club met to discuss our common interest - travelling in our vans. Someone said that they would like to go to Samarkand and we said we would like to return there (we stayed a few days on our way to China in 2002). As we didn't want to go the same way again, I suggested we go across the Karakorum Highway. We then had a group of three vans and five people. Over the next few weeks the route developed and is still being thought about.
Starting in late March, our route takes us down the Adriatic coast of Croatia which is beautiful with over night stops at some of the places of interest such as Dubrovnik. From there we go through Albania. I have researched going through this country and it is a lot safer than going around it through Kosovo. Even the FCO says that there should be no problems. Travellers' reports say that the people are very friendly and they have not encountered any difficulties. The main road through the country has been resurfaced and is in good condition.
Then we go through Macedonia to Greece and Turkey. After all the old hassles between Greece and Turkey it was a pleasure to whiz through the new border post in 35 minutes last year. After that we camp up in Istanbul for a few days to service the vehicles, wait for any of our party who haven't joined us and obtain such visas as we think appropriate.
After that we cross into Asia and on our way through Turkey we visit the amazing landscapes around Cappadocia and later see the remarkable sculptures at Nemrut Dagi before passing Lake Van near the border with Iran. In Iran we go south through Esfahan, and Bam, sadly now a scene of desolation to reach the border with Pakistan some 12 days later. Pakistan is quieter these days but depending on the group's views there are a choice of routes north which could take us to Peshawar, the gateway to the Khyber pass and a fascinating city in its own right. Not far to the east is Rawlpindi and Islamabad at the start of the Karakorum Highway. The Highway has been described in Wanderlust magazine as the most breathtaking overland journey in the world. The road passes through some incredible scenery in an area with more mountains over 7000m than anywhere else in the world.
The Highway also has a number of interesting towns and valleys along the way to visit as it gradually rises to over 4000m at the Kunjerab pass. Here we enter China and descend steeply down to a plain and visit beautiful Lake Karakul set between two 7000m+ peaks. We can hike around the lake in less than a day and camp there as well. There should also be nomads camped up in their yurts. The road then passes through a deep gorge and out along the edge of the Taklamaken desert until we reach Kashgar. This is a hub for locals and has a huge market on Sundays. We stay here for three days before setting off to cross the Irkeshtam Pass into Kyrgystan. We visit Osh and after only two days we cross the border into Uzbekistan. This is the famous (or infamous) Fergana Valley but we go straight to Samarkand for a few days and then stay some more in Bukhara.
Returning eastwards through Tashkent, we cross into Kazahkstan to stay in the popular city of Almaty. From there we set off north east towards the Altai mountain range and enter the Russian Federation and Siberia. This area has many small autonomous states and Altai is the first of these. We have the option to turn south at the industrial city of Barnaul to visit more of the Altai Mountains. Much of the early route is popular with campers and there are many sites along the beautiful valleys. However we have to travel 100s of kms south along the Chusky Tract described as a kaleidoscope of passes, canyons and mountain vistas leading to a peak rimmed steppe land dotted with Kazakh yurts. This is almost on the Mongolian border. At the moment we are investigating the possibility of travelling on through Mongolia to Ulan Bator but the border may not be open to foreigners. If this is the case we will travel from Barnaul directly to Novosibirsk instead. This is a railway city with not much to see although by now we may be in need of a visit to an Irish pub there. A day or so north of here is Tomsk which is celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2004. It is a delightful city with many fine old wooden mansions and cobbled streets.
A loop south east takes us to Kyzyl in Tuva. Tuva has forests, mountains, lakes and vast undulating and virtually unpopulated steppes and is very similar to Mongolia culturally and scenically. Tuva is famous for its throat singers and its strange-shaped postage stamps. Kyzel is the capital of Tuva and claims to be the centre of Asia and although it is not an attractive city, it has some memorable attractions - throat singing, meeting the shamans, kuresh (a flamboyant style of wresting like Japanese sumo) and even a long distance horse race.
Going back north and east we follow the Trans-Siberian Railway to Irkutsk, a cosmopolitan city near Lake Baikal. The city has many fine churches and grand 19th century architecture. The Lake however is the real point of interest. It is the largest fresh water lake in the world containing about 25% of the worlds fresh water supply. It is over 600 km long and has many unique species including freshwater seal.
If we haven't arrived here from Ulan Bator, we will retrace our route to Novosibirsk and go on westwards to Omsk which has a compact but pleasant centre surrounded by a lot industry. Supposedly it has some good restaurants. After just a day we leave the city and head to Ekaterinburg, birthplace of Boris Yeltsin and with a bloody and secret history. It is here that the remains of the Romanovs were found. Now it is a pleasant place with a wealth of museums fascinating architecture and a good range of restaurants.
Passing quickly through Perm (previously Molotov) in the Urals we reach 13thC Nizhny Novgorod a few days later on the southern bank of the Volga River. This is a good place to stay a couple of days. There is the Kremlin to see and a trip on the river is suggested but the ships are in poor condition. We are now getting near Moscow but 200kms from there we turn on to the Golden Ring. There a number of old towns mostly from the 16th and 17th C built by princes, the Church and merchants. Towns to enjoy include Vladimir, Suzdahl, Kostroma and Yaroslavl before we head into Moscow. We should be used to Russian cities by now as many of them are 60 or 70 kms across. Getting into the centre of Moscow should not be too difficult as the M8, the road we will use, goes o the inner ring road. There is much to see in Moscow - Red Square, the Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral. After probably 4 days we will have seen enough.
Novgorod is a popular overnight stop with origins in the 9thC. We could take a 2 hour trip along the Volga if we are so inclined. However we will soon move along to St Petersburg. Another fascinating city worth a stay of several days, but it's likely we will have to use some industrial strength mosquito repellent. Not far from St Petersburg is Estonia and the other Baltic States. Although we may like to stay a few days in each of these visiting Tallin, Kallaste on the shores of Lake Peipus, Riga, and Vilnius we will go on into Poland and head down to Krakow and then cross into the Czech Republic. After that we head back to Calais and if everything has gone to plan we should arrive there on the 11 October.
The planning progress can be divided up into several parts. Firstly we needed to decide upon the general route. This involved a meeting of the initial combatants, lots of chat and copious amounts of wine (or water as the case may be). With a general shape (but not in good shape!), we then went on to research the weather patterns to establish our time scale, starting date and whether we would meet any problems with heat, cold, wet, snow etc.
With this feasibility study setting our parameters we then set about working up a daily plan taking into account the type of roads we would be driving along. This involved more in-depth research on the places to be visited. Our sources were personal knowledge, Lonely Planet and other guides, maps and atlases, Internet searches, and making contact with local travel agents.
Together with good maps to measure distances, this enabled us to make good estimates (we hope) of our daily mileage and stop-over periods for sightseeing. We decided on a typical daily driving pattern with a start time, time for breaks and lunch and a stopping time. With an estimated speed on different types of road, we were now able to work up our daily plan.
Now we knew which countries we would drive through and our entry and exit dates. The next step was to check out the requirements for visas and other paperwork for each country. Fortunately we only need to get visas for 8 of the 23 different countries we will visit.
The process for getting visas varies from country to country. With Turkey you get the visa on demand at the border. With Central Asian countries, letter of support may be needed (in this case one from the Cub will do) or a letter of invitation which has to be supplied with the visa application. The invitation comes from a travel agent situated within the country to be visited. The simplest thing is to use a UK agent to sort this out but we prefer to find our own contact (Internet etc) to minimise costs. Care has to be taken with dates and validity of the visas.
China and Iran are special cases. A letter of invitation is needed for China but extra arrangements need to be made to take in a vehicle and a guide is needed for each day the vehicle is being driven along the pre-arranged route. An agent is vital for Iran as a direct application to the embassy will almost certainly be rejected if you have a British passport.
Other documentation is needed such as a Carnet de Passage en Douanes (a kind of customs passport for the van), International Driving Licence, International Certificate for Motor Vehicle, Green Card (required in some countries), travel insurance and so on.
Hopefully while all this is being arranged we will have thoroughly serviced the van, assembled all the spares, had our jabs, put together a medical kit, loaded all our stores and sorted out our personal affairs.
While all this has been going on our little group has grown and we are now five vans and we can't wait to get back on the road.
|Clive (and Ann) Barker.|
Home - This page last changed on 2004-02-18.