Getting stopped by ‘The Fuzz’ has become part of our daily routine as we travel east. Our running total has now reached more than 40 times in the last 12 months alone.
In most Eastern European countries the police have a bad reputation for stopping tourists and collecting bribes. This can be incredibly frustrating when so much bad driving is going on around you unpunished. Emma and I have a strict rule that we will never pay a bribe, and up until now we have stuck to this and not parted with a penny! This kind of low-level corruption should never be encouraged; paying backhanders only makes the police expect subsequent payments from your fellow overlanders. Obviously this is for ‘made-up’ charges and false accusations, if you actually do the crime you should pay the legal fine.
Surprisingly Russia wasn’t the worst offender, as we’d heard, we were pulled over at least 10 times but never actually asked for any money. On the one occasion they actually stopped us legitimately, I was made to sit in the back of the smokey police Lada, and much to my surprise the officer showed me a photograph on a laptop of our car travelling at 72kph in an apparent 50kph zone 5km back down the road. Once he learnt we were heading to Mongolia he called us crazy and sent us on our way.
Checkpoints are a fairly regular occurrence in foreign countries; we had them in Morocco, Russia, Ukraine and all the ‘Stans. Most of the time they have police control buildings at the side of the road, normally located just after a succession of decreasing speed limit signs crammed into a 50m stretch, making it virtually impossible to slow down in time. In the Ukraine we got stopped by a rather over-zealous speed gun operator stood next to the speed limit sign (90km down to 30km). He wanted to see all my original documents and took me into his little room where he placed his gun on the table and basically tried to get me to pay $200. After playing the dumb tourist (which Emma thinks I’ve mastered), a long wait and a refusal to get into his police car to take us to the nearest ATM, we left without paying a thing!
The secret to avoid getting stopped at checkpoints is to avoid making eye contact, helped enormously by a right-hand drive vehicle! That tactic worked up until Kazakhstan where the police stopped us a whopping 17 times. On one occasion I apparently broke 4 laws in the space of about 30 metres when I pulled out from a petrol station. Most of the time the police, waving large orange sticks and whistle blowing excessively, are generally just curious about Bee-bee and her number plate. Again, this discrimination is incredibly frustrating when complete lunacy is going on all around you in cars that are totally unfit for the road.
In the former Soviet countries the police are generally pretty useless at patrolling bad driving, ironically the ‘sleeping policemen’ are more effective at controlling the traffic. The permanent farcical wooden police car cut-outs are also a poor deterrent to discourage bad driving. The police do however like inspecting paperwork. Being tourists you do have the advantage that most of the officers have no idea what they are looking at when you hand over documents. Give them colour photocopies in the first instance unless they strongly insist otherwise- once they have the originals the bribing ball’s in their court!
Much to our amusement most of the police we encountered looked like the comical sculpture we spotted in Finland 4 years earlier, only the police in the ‘Stans having disproportionately larger hats. We soon learnt that if we stopped far enough down the road past the typically portly police in their elasticated-waist uniforms, their laziness would prompt them to wave us on rather than walk to our car.
On the few occasions they did make it to the window (normally the passenger side) we used our over-the-top, non-stop friendly English accents and diversion tactics like showing them the shower and solar panel to charm them/confuse them into letting us go. If you are calm, polite, patient and show them you have all the time in the world to wait they normally get bored of you and can’t be bothered with the hassle of continuing to extort money from you. Even if you can speak the local language, stick to your own because they don’t have the patience for this either.
Since their independence one thing most of the post-Soviet countries have in common is a desire to out-do each other whilst proving to the rest of the world that they are worthy of competing on an international stage.
To announce their arrival many of the larger cities have been busy constructing exceedingly tall flagpoles and Dubai-esq ostentatious and often kitsch architectural projects. We first encountered this in Batumi, Georgia. For a relatively small city it had a disproportionately large amount of ‘interesting’ architecture.
The 180m tall Batumi Tower is probably one of the most eccentric. In an effort to attract attention and aiming for classy prestige, it is intersected 100m from the ground by a 20 metre diameter golden Ferris wheel.
Equally as insane is the White Restaurant, basically an upside down mini White House. Initially designed as a joke by a 24 year-old architect it was spotted and built within a year.
Thankfully Batumi has one redeeming piece of architecture that makes up for these tacky abominations. Ironically McDonalds isn’t usually associated with good design. Luckily the branch in Batumi is a stunning piece of glass-clad, cantilevered, sculptural goodness. Designed by Khmaladze Architects, the building incorporates a McDonalds and a fuel station in one.
The Armenian capital, Yerevan also has an unusual building. The Cascade was originally completed in 1980 but has since undergone an extensive make over. Essentially a five-storey building incorporated into a ginormous staircase, the Cascade now houses a contemporary art collection.
Kazakhstan’s capital Astana is the realisation of a 1950’s Sci-Fi vision of the future. It’s self appointed ‘Home of Futuristic Architecture’ title is well deserved with glass pyramids, golden eggs and giant tents dominating the skyline.
Astana’s city plan is driven by the President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s vision. Often criticized as a vanity project the city has sprung from nothing since the President moved the capital city in 1997 from Almaty.
Astana’s buildings have been designed by many international architects, including British Architect Norman Foster who designed The King’s Tent, the world’s largest tent and The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a glass pyramid.
Some of the most brash and showy buildings can be found in Turkmenistan where President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s obsession with gold statues and white marble is dominating the capital city, Ashgabat. Unfortunately/thankfully we weren’t allowed to visit the capital where the tasteless opulence is turned up to 11, we did however visit The National History and Ethnology Museum in Mary, Turkmenistan where the museum was displaying a rather impressive collection of badly photoshopped photographs of the supreme leader all housed in a lavish white marble building.
Seemingly each country in Central Asia is keen to out-do each other, this competitive spirit has manifested itself in a ‘which country has the largest flagpole competition’.
For a short time Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest country, held the world record with their 165 metre tall pole costing a whopping $3.5 million trumping Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan who also have pretty impressive poles.
Following on in our ‘Adventure Annoyances’ series we look now from the surface of the roads to those driving on them, specifically the Bad drivers. Every country has atrocious drivers; only some have more than others, the worst offenders we have found being in Albania, Turkey, Russia and Georgia. Tailgating is a huge problem in all countries, with cars literally less than 2m from your rear bumper at speeds of more than 50kph.
The Georgians & Russians in particular have a unique style of overtaking, which involves passing as close as possible to your vehicle; behind, along side and in front. We have witnessed vehicles overtaking vehicles that were already overtaking other vehicles. We frequently see people being forced off the road by on-coming overtaking vehicles, usual accompanied with a kind, informative light flash which states “I’m coming through, even though you have right-of-way and I’m going to have to force you to brake and swerve”. The hard shoulder, when it exists, is also a valid lane for ‘undertaking’.
We rode in several Taxis in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi and not once did I see the drivers use their mirrors. One driver purposefully inched sideways todays a lady driver to intimidate her and another reached out his window and snapped off the wing mirror of another car who refused to move out his way.
Outside of Europe no one uses baby seats in cars, it’s not unusual to see children playing on dashboards, sat on laps (without seatbelts) and standing in the gap between the two front seats. In Bishkek (a city renowned for it’s chaotic, fast traffic) we witnessed a 5-year-old boy steering the car from his fathers lap whilst dad sat back and ate a sandwich.
On one occasion in Armenia crossing an icy, snowy pass we encountered a white Lada on its roof being retrieved from down a steep verge. 30 minutes later the same white Lada overtook us on a blind bend!
Seemingly it doesn’t matter what the driving conditions are, the drivers don’t seem to change their driving habits. We had several near misses in fog because other drivers failed to use their lights; rain, snow and ice also have no effect on drivers speed or care. Bright sunshine in your eyes? Just cover your driver’s window completely with a towel, shading your eyes and also obscuring your entire peripheral view. Why just drive when you can multitask? - Combine it with messaging on your phone, reading the paper or eating your dinner?
The condition of the cars also doesn’t fill you with confidence, bald tyres, broken windscreens, no lights and often completely overloaded (and that’s not just our car!), sometimes to the point where you are swerving to avoid tumbling items from the truck ahead; from rocks and gravel to onions and potatoes.
One positive side to all of the bad drivers (excluding taxis!) in the countries mentioned is that these motoring misdemeanours are rarely carried out in an aggressive fashion. People seem to accept each other’s stupidity, dangerous manoeuvres and blatant disregard for human life as all part of normal, daily road use. Horns are beeped cheerfully to let others know you’re about to do something reckless and stupid, rather than as a hostile reaction to others foolish and careless driving. Narrowly missing a head-on collision at 60kph on a blind bend from an oncoming, overtaking pickup with windscreen obscured by the tons of hay precariously piled on top… a wave and a big happy smile from the driver on the phone with his baby on his lap and it’s all OK.
Gaze at the constant stream of romantic overland expedition posts on social media and it’s easy to believe that it’s all exotic sunsets, idyllic camp spots and laughter with locals.
In reality however, it’s not all thrilling and fulfilling- overlanding has more than its fair share of exasperations and frustrations. But surely that’s part of the experience, right? Most days these provocations can be shrugged off, even laughed at, but even with the strongly developed tolerance and patience of an overlander sometimes these few repeating niggles make you want to scream from the roof(tent)tops.
In this short series of blogs I retain the right to rant, expose the things that have left nail marks in the steering wheel and detail our main adventure annoyances, our overlanding irritations. So here is my stage on which to vent. First up, bad roads. Expected? Yes. Tolerated? Mostly…
We’ve experienced some pretty terrible roads on our travels. Just to clarify, we’re not talking about off-road dirt tracks high up into the mountains here, we’re talking about main roads, motorways and city streets.
Russia, Kosovo, Albania, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan all have their fair share of ‘bad’ roads often with potholes larger than your car.
Deep chasms are not the only surface danger, due to heavy truck traffic many roads become furrowed, once in a groove your vehicle handles like it is on rails, without a vigilant steering wheel wrestle this can suddenly send you veering towards oncoming traffic.
Travelling in Armenia in your own vehicle is costly, on entry we paid at least £50 for ecology and road tax. Ironically when we left we should have billed Armenia for the damage done to our car for using such terrible roads. I’m not sure where the tax money is going but it certainly isn’t being spent on the roads.
The highway system in Armenia consists of 7,633km of (apparently) paved roads, of which, 1,561km are supposedly expressways; our average speed on Armenia’s M1 was about 28mph.
One of the worst stretches of urban street we encountered was in Sevan; some of the potholes on the main high street are so large you can see them on Google Earth!
It is not just the road surfaces that are dangerous in these countries; the lack of road markings, signals and ambiguous road junctions are equally hazardous, as are open drain covers and deep gutters. Other potential dangers include animals, overloaded trucks and clueless pedestrians. In Georgia we narrowly avoided hitting a child, who crossing the road with his mother, ran straight out in front of our vehicle. Fortunately the only physical damage done to him was from the heavy clout round the ear his mother gave him for being so careless.
Georgia’s excessive use of speed bumps is simply annoying. A motorway should never have speed bumps! Especially unmarked speed bumps.
In Western Europe we have a system for using roundabouts, it works because every roundabout employs the same system, you know your place and everybody else knows theirs. In Eastern Europe the system fails as every roundabout operates a different system. Some roundabouts allow vehicles that are approaching to have right-of-way whilst others allow the vehicles on the roundabout to have priority, some even employ both on the same roundabout. Some roundabouts even have traffic lights mid-roundabout whilst others have no road markings at all and are simply a massive city square with six lanes of traffic and a fountain in the middle. So, bad roads, the first of my adventure annoyances- the logistical network allowing me to traverse this wonderful planet, but at times my reason for breaking the 6pm G&T rule.
The true heart of Kazakhstan can be found in its vast steppe land, at times stretching to an infinite horizon in every direction. The world’s ninth largest country, a third of Kazakhstan’s colossal land area is steppe, an indication of just how immense this landscape is. So common is the sight of eternal, flat plain that it is easy to take this beautiful habitat for granted and many exploring the natural wonders of the country bypass this glorious grassland and focus mainly on its mountains, canyons, lakes and National Parks.
At first sight, the steppe landscape can appear monotonous and barren but peer closer to the ground and there is a myriad of wildlife to be discovered. Hot, dry summers and freezing winters present challenging conditions for survival, but the species that can be found here are perfectly adapted to the extreme fluctuating conditions of drought, strong winds, frost and grazing.
In the remote, northern regions of the country driving distances are huge and harsh road conditions make overland travel laboriously slow and bone-shaking. A bumpy journey weaving around potholes with little other traffic does have the one advantage of offering the chance to view many steppe species surprisingly close-up. Bobak Marmot relax stretched-out in the sunshine on road verges, lazily watching you swerving past. Around our campsites these stocky, ginger-coloured rodents stand on their hind legs from their sandy burrow entrances, watching you cautiously and scurrying deep underground, squeaking, should you get too close.
The diversity of birds of prey on the steppe is staggering; Eagles, Kites, Buzzards and Kestrels soar and perch every few hundred metres. White Pallid Harrier hover ghost-like over the road verges hunting for mice while magnificent steppe Eagles sit poised on tree stumps surveying the horizon.
We camped wild across the steppe for the entire month of May, a wonderful opportunity to experience spring in Kazakhstan. With a completely flat horizon, the sky presents a ginormous aerial auditorium to view the fast, ever-changing weather patterns which roll in across the landscape. Standing in one place, you can see black clouds with sheets of vertical rain pouring down, flashes of fork lightning and hear rumbling thunder in front of you. Behind you is bright blue sky, white fluffy clouds and brilliant sunshine. One minute we were setting up a picnic in the sun, then 5 minutes later diving for cover of the car as huge icy hailstones battered the earth.
Tall, elegant steppe Hare leap from nowhere as you search for a camp spot, bounding ahead effortlessly along the grass track. Small, charming ground squirrels peep from their burrows, waiting until the last second to dive out of your way, inquisitively reappearing minutes later to see what’s happening.
In the warm light of sunset the carpet of tall grass swaying in the breeze turns golden and the songs of thousands of insects are amplified as the light fades. At dusk, bats swoop from nowhere and the cautious rustlings of small rodents can be heard emerging from burrows nearby, tiny voles wide-eyed when caught in our torch light.
At dawn a new chorus begins as incalculable bugs welcome the arrival of day; butterflies flitting amongst the flowers, vivid, hairy caterpillars climb the tall stems, ants march across the dry soil, bees buzzing between poppies, iridescent beetles clinging to tall grass tips and crickets and grasshoppers leaping in all directions with every step you take through the meadow.
For all the beauty and magnificence of National Parks, it is simply unbeatable to wake with the sound of a cuckoo calling, crickets chirping and an unobstructed 360 degree view of wild expanse, often without any sign of people or buildings.
Though gentle and delicate to look at, not even the might and power of a crushing soviet offensive on these peaceful pastures could tame their roots. During soviet times in the 1950’s, a vast majority of the Steppe was brutally ploughed and planted as far as the eye could see with cultivated wheat fields, with only around 20% of the original steppe preserved. Agriculture failure was widespread and has been abandoned in much of the steppe, where slowly the grassland is regenerating and nomadic pasturing has returned.