- Polaris Overland.
The Start A Long Lonely Road
Having spent 10 days in the UK making sure Angela had everything she needed and attending the forest wedding of Angela’s eldest son Ryan and Alex it was time for me to head back to Almaty and collect Wilson to start the long drive home.
The flight home involved a 22-hour stop over at Ataturk Airport, Istanbul. Not the nicest 22 hours but I did manage to catch some sleep and although the wait seemed like forever I was soon in Almaty arriving around 5am. First issue was my luggage with spare parts for Wilson had not arrived. So after making the appropriate claims it was time to get to the hotel.
Tired and a bit stressed I normally ignore all the Taxi touts but on this occasion I didn’t. The fare from ARB to the airport when I left Wilson to head to the UK was just under 2000 Tenge (around £4.50) and despite agreeing a fair of 1000 Tenge (just over £2.00) which I thought seemed cheap for an airport taxi however once at the hotel the driver wanted to charge 40,000 Tenge.
After much arguing and to the disappointment of the driver and his sidekick who came on the journey it was agreed the price would be 4000 Tenge. The driver had expected a first time visitor to Kazakhstan, who knew nothing and instead was faced with someone much more travelled and experienced.
Whilst more than the outward taxi fare this was a much nicer taxi and it was an airport taxi so the expectation was always for it to be more expensive.
I checked into the hotel and then got a few hours sleep before heading off to see Anna at ARB Almaty and collect Wilson. It’s always nice to see Anna; she is always smiling and happy.
With Wilson collected I headed back to the hotel to get some checks done on Wilson, pack and sort everything as now I was alone I could pack how I wanted it and I got all of Angela’s stuff put away and secured.
Still no luggage from the flight but I was promised it would be delivered to the hotel by the next day. Sure enough next morning my bag had arrived waiting for me in reception and after replacing a few items on Wilson and getting sorted it was time to hit the road and start for Scotland.
First to get some shopping then find a bank and before long I was on the road heading towards Shymkent where I had driven through previously to get to Almaty to fly home.
I found a wild camp on iOverlander and camped up. Shortly afterwards visitors arrived. They came to let their dogs run around and chat a while. Wanting to know all about Wilson, where we had been and even inviting me to stay at their home. I politely declined, as I was already set up, with washing hanging out and fire ready to go.
Next day I had arranged to meet up with Hannes and Lonny for breakfast. We had first met Hannes in his VW T4 and Lonny his elderly husky at Sharyn Canyon in June and despite often being close we had not managed to meet up again since.
Hannes was heading to Uzbekistan and then to Iran for winter so this was a last chance catch up. Hannes made eggs for breakfast and we enjoyed catching up.
As we were going the same way as far as Shymkent we decided to convoy to just before our paths separated where we stopped to enjoy lunch and cay.
Saying our goodbyes we wished each other well and headed off in our different directions. I was meeting up with Guy and Sharon of Truckedoff at the Ancient Silk Road City of Sauran just north of Turkistan and I still had about 150 miles to go to get to them.
Arriving around 6pm we met up and then got ourselves set up and finished off the vodka and beer as we chatted. By now it was getting cold and windy. Wind is something that was going to frustrate me for many days ahead on the flat featureless Kazak Steppe. However using the ancient city walls for cover we managed to get ourselves comfortable.
We retired into Guy and Sharon’s Defender 110 where someone thought it was a good idea to open up a bottle of their cheap Uzbek Cognac. At some point Sharon decided to open a second bottle and whilst Guy and I never batted an eyelid and carried on drinking sorting out the problems of the world Sharon used better judgement and drank water.
Needless to say I only vaguely remember going to my tent, I think someone said it was around 2am. I woke up in the sleeping bag still fully clothed and if I’m honest not feeling at my peak condition. Guy was suffering similarly or maybe even worse.
I started to get packed away and headed for a walk amongst the city ruins, as much to hopefully make me feel a bit better as to admire what once must have been an impressive site.
By around late morning it was time for me to get going. As of now I had no plans to meet up with anyone until Turkey about 2500 miles away.
I was now headed west into the constant wind and it was getting colder all the time. Still feeling rough I made about 300 miles and camped up near a river Zhosaly. It was a cold and windy camp I tried to camp down in a hollow area to at least reduce the wind but even so after eating dinner it was early into the tent to keep warm.
Next morning was an early start. I guess being in the tent so early you sleep earlier so wake up earlier too.
Back on the road the wind was relentless with snow showers on one side of me and rain on the other and I was hoping to thread between them. Plus my fuel economy was getting to about 19mpg when normally I was averaging around 25mpg. In typical overlanding paranoia I’m wondering what else could be wrong, as the drop seemed so sudden. Thankfully fuel is cheap in Kazakhstan at around £0.35 per litre.
That night with less than -7 temps forecast I stayed in a cheap truckers hotel. I ate in the adjoining restaurant and enjoyed a warm evening. Although the walls were paper-thin and it seems the minute someone’s phone rings they feel the need to shout at the top of their voices.
Next morning it was a cold frosty start. Wilson turned over and started but sounded really rough, with smoke billowing out. Being in too much of a hurry I didn’t let Wilson warm up properly and drove off but found Wilson sluggish to the point it felt like fuel starvation. About a mile down the road I realised I had a problem and went to turn around to head back to the truck stop and garages. Wilson died, a splutter then stopped. I tried to restart him but he was not having any of it.
Really unsure what to expect I opened the bonnet to see if I could see anything obvious. Initially I found what looked like a fuel leak and assumed the injector seals had failed. Not great at the side of a road in a cold windy Kazak Steppe. Checking everything I could I tried to start Wilson again. He started and I let him sit idling for 20 mins. This seemed to do the trick, the fuel temps rose, the injector readings on the nanocom were back to normal and Wilson feeling like nothing had ever been wrong. I assumed the diesel had waxed and caused blockages particularly in the injectors but now warmed up everything was good.
Heading off, nerves on tenterhooks for the 350 odd miles to Aktobe looking out for the slightest flicker or sound of a problem.
Driving the long straight and flat roads of the Steppe is very monotonous and the best policy for me with it also being cold and windy was to just keep getting the miles rolling by as quickly as possible.
I arrived in the evening and was booked into the Nice Hostel that is recommended on iOverlander. It’s a nice clean quiet place so I decided to stay 2 nights, see a bit of the city and to buy some anti gel for the diesel. The cold snap had caught everyone out and no one had winter diesel yet.
On the morning I was to leave Wilson started with no issues at all despite the weather being down in the minus temperatures. It seems the anti gel was working so after letting him warm up for 20 minutes I got on my way.
I was heading further west to get close to the border with Russia. I camped up about 20km from the border just passed Taskala. I found a nice spot and set up camp. It was closed to dry reeds and after eating dinner I smelled smoke. Looking round I found they were burning off the reeds all around. Quickly getting packed up with ash raining on Wilson and myself. We got out of the way with about 5 minutes to spare before the reeds right where I was camped went up in flames. It was now getting dark but I found another spot by a small lake and away from the reeds. It ended up being a pleasant night with great views of the night sky.
Up early I wanted to cross into Russia as early as possible so I packed up, let Wilson warm up properly and I was on my way. The road to the border was being rebuilt so the tracks on and off were a bit rough but the border crossing despite having read about long waits was surprisingly quick and all over within about 1.5 hours.
From the border I was heading for Volgograd. I was wanting to camp on the river and after much difficulty finding a route to the river I arrived and camped up in the dark. Later I would find I was camped in a farmer’s garden on the cliffs overlooking the river. Stunning sunset and an even more stunning sunrise.
Driving into Volgograd I had high hopes but was sadly disappointed. A quick drive around to see the statue and over the bridges of the Volga to look back at the views was all I managed. I had thought about spending a few days in Volgograd but having seen it I decided to press on to Elista.
Heading out of Volgograd as I was turning off a roundabout I heard a loud bang on the left side of Wilson. A Lada decided it wanted to get too close and we had our first crash of the trip. I pulled over to check the damage and couldn’t see anything. On the other hand the Lada had his wing mirror in bits and hanging off. Looked at the driver shouted at him and he flung his hands in the air, lifted his wing mirror then dropped it again, shrugged his shoulders and jumped back in his car and drove off. So no arguments there then.
The drive to Elista was uneventful but the scenery was changing a little, greener and not quite so flat.
Leaving Elista I was aiming for the Vladikavkaz border crossing into Georgia. I didn’t expect to actually cross today but just to get close and camp up then cross early next day as I was expecting a busy border crossing as this was the only open border crossing between Russia and Georgia.
Getting close to my chosen camp spot I headed off the main into a supermarket near Terek to get a bottle of vodka and a few supplies. Leaving the supermarket I came across 3 different police stops. The first 2 were nice and friendly with smiles and interest in Wilson as is normal throughout Asia.
The 3rd stop I was told in poor broken English there was a problem and that I needed to get out of the Landy. I did so and showed them my documents. At this point they stated I should not be on that road and would have to go to the Police Station and be deported. A local lady who spoke a little English came over to try and help me out. Despite me saying I had a Russian Visa, and that I would turn around and go back the way I came they were adamant I was going to be deported. Finally unsure of why I “shouldn’t” be on that road I phoned the British Embassy in Moscow.
Whilst on the phone the lady explained to them I was talking to my embassy in Moscow and without any explanation they angrily told me I could go and that I must only stay on the main federal roads and cannot go off the main routes.
Later I found out this is normal around Dagestan and South / North Ossetia Regions and that in this instance I had been lucky.
My planned camp was about 5 miles from this place and off the main road by a river and train bridge. Thankfully it was well hidden away and I had no further problems except the sound of the trains passing by.
Next morning I got an early start and headed to the border crossing. Although the lorry tailback was for about 6km there were no cars queuing. Formalities were all completed very quickly and I headed back into Georgia stopping to buy car insurance and then the long climb up through the mountains. When we had driven this route back in June it was torrential rain and cloud down to the floor so this time it was great to get the views and I stopped off to look round an old Fortress called Ananuri.
From there I headed to a lovely camp spot by the river near Gori. Sadly the area is covered in plastic bottles washed down the river and left behind when it floods.
Someone though had made a start at collecting them together in piles so I cleaned up my spot a little and added to the piles. An old shepherd came to say hello and then I was left on my own. With darkness I had a fire going and moonlight was keeping things from getting too dark. Through the night it rained on and off but in the morning my tent was dry and I packed away as quickly as I could as it looked like more rain was coming.
Leaving in a slight drizzle of rain my drive to the border at Sarpi through the mountains to Batumi it rained. In fact it poured for pretty much 300 miles. My raised air intake leak decided to make an appearance again and I was forced to stop and come up with a “bush repair” to get me going.
Crossing the border at Sarpi was again pretty quick although everything is set up more for lorries than cars to the office windows are raised high up meaning if you arrive in a car you have to get up and climb up to speak in the window.
Once through it was a100 mile drive along the Black Sea Coast to Trabzon. I was booked into the Andalouse Suites (we stayed here in May) for one night but next day it was dry so I decided to fit the replacement hoses I had for the raised air intake whilst I could. Afterwards I spent the day walking around and then found a bar for a couple of beers.
Next day I was off again, heading towards Golcuk and meeting up with Emre and Gamze of Overland Anatolia where I would spend time doing a long list maintenance and repairs on Wilson, ready for returning to the UK.
The weather was awful all the way. I found a hotel in Tosya for £9.00 a night and stopped there rather than in the pouring rain with the tent. It wasn’t exactly luxury but it was warm and dry and at that price I was happy. In the evening I had a walk around town, got some shopping but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t find anywhere that was selling beer.
Next day I had about a 200-mile run to Golcuk. Expecting to be there by lunchtime after a 7am start I was hit with snow and again torrential rain. All a good test of my raised air intake repair but not very pleasant for driving in.
Finally I arrived late afternoon and parked up with Emre at Overland Anatolia. We spent a few hours chatting before heading out for a beer and meeting up with Gamze.