DESTINATIONS - RUSSIA
NZ Adventure 4x4 tour specialist Rally Tours NZ has just completed another epic Silk Road trip. Greg Paul ticks off the highlights.
On July 15 this year Rally Tours NZ arrived in Vladivostok, Russia’s far eastern seaport. The three-vehicle convoy made up of the two Rally Tours Land Cruisers (AWH161, a 2002 100 series and UH9692 a 1996 80 series), and Derek and Margaret Jones in their 2002 Nissan Safari SWB, had been on the road for 75 days and covered 19,000km passing through 12 different countries experiencing a variety of conditions. Here at Rally Tours NZ Ltd we like to describe our Silk Road 4x4 expedition as the ultimate overland journey and as participants in the 2015 edition found out every day was an adventure. Our journey started at the London Heathrow Novotel on the Tuesday May 5 and crossed into Europe by overnight ferry to a port near Amsterdam. Our transit through Europe then took us to Berlin in Germany, Warsaw in Poland, Kaunas in Lithuania and Rezekne in Latvia before crossing into Russia. Our first of three visits to Russian Federation territory took us into a cold and wet Moscow for three nights before following a new and exciting route to the south eastern cities of historical Volgograd and the border town of Astrakhan.
After a smooth border crossing from Russia into Kazakhstan, our first ‘Central Asian’ country to be visited lived up to its reputation of having some of the worst and roughest roads in the world. For the next few days as we travelled toward Uzbekistan and most of the journey would be at below sea level as we skirted the wealthy Caspian sea region. Uzbekistan hosts the historic cities of Khiva, Bukhara and the hub of all of the various Silk Road routes, Samarkand. All of these places are fascinating and just bubbling with history. The ancient buildings are mostly nicely restored so that it is not difficult to imagine what it was like 10 centuries ago. One of the driving highlights of the Silk Road trip is a diversion to take on the Pamir Highway. This is one of the last great roads in the world and rates as my number one drive on the planet. The four- day, 1200km drive starts from Dushanbe in Tajikistan and passes over mountain passes up to 4655 metres, fords major rivers, and runs alongside Afghanistan for a whole day, just separated by the raging Panj River.
The roads are amazing and the scenery just spectacular. A capable 4x4 is essential to deal with any eventuality that may occur. Venturing further into Kyrgyzstan on this trip was a new addition to our itinerary in 2015. This year we visited the cities of Osh and the capital Bishkek. The surprise was the stunning alpine scenery at high altitudes, the spectacular snow-covered mountain peaks and the amazing mountain roads. The capital Bishkek is a very civilised and vibrant city that we look forward to returning to in 2017 on the next Silk Road trip. Just across the border and back in Kazakhstan for the second time is the city of Almaty. Again another surprise and wonderful place visited before heading out into the vastness of the Kazakh wilderness toward neighbouring Russia. Despite no longer being the mother of the ‘Stan’ countries, Russia’s influence in the governance and well-being of the
ex-USSR conglomerate is still in evidence. And the price of fuel in Kazakhstan at less than 0.50 cents US per litre, makes road travel inexpensive.
Back in the USSR!
Due to an interesting geographical boundary line it’s not possible to travel from Kazakhstan into Mongolia without passing through the Russian Altay region, not that this is a hardship.
The Altay region is often referred to as the Switzerland of Russia with mountains, valleys and fast flowing rivers and is the winter and summer playground for wealthy Russians from central Siberia.
Our direction toward Mongolia’s western border took us via the city of Barnaul, the resort town of Chemal and lastly the village of Chibit before arriving at the Tashanta border crossing with Mongolia.
After crossing out of Russia there is a 30km drive though ‘no man’s land’ to enter Mongolia and the start of a new 15-day adventure in the vast countryside of a country I love to play in.
Ultimate 4x4 driving
Mongolia is nothing like most people imagine. The roads are indescribable, because generally there aren’t any and it has to be the ultimate 4x4 driving experience on the dirt with lots of river crossings.
The local people are friendly and lots of people experiences are guaranteed as we visit local villages, shop from local shops and sleep in the traditional accommodation called ‘Gurs.’
The vastness of the rolling Mongolian countryside and the simplicity of this sparsely populated land makes for a memorable experience that most clients just want to repeat as soon as they can. It’s always a sad occasion to leave the border of Mongolia but we still had another 3500km to travel in the far east of Russia to finish in Vladivostok.
Ulan Ude is our first stop back in Russia for the third time. It’s essential that we visit Lake Baikal, the largest lake by volume of water in the world and in the winter frozen over for seven months!
Back on track and heading east on roads that don’t even appear on most modern maps we passed through Chita, Skorovodino, Blagoveshchensk, and Khaborovsk before arriving in Vladivostok
on the Russian Pacific seaboard.
The last part of the journey was just as exciting as the first part and we all agreed that the 75 days has just flown by with more than 3000 photos taken, 2000 litres of (cheap) fuel consumed and 13 borders crossed in 19,000km.
You can imagine the huge sense of personal achievement amongst our group as we celebrated at the farewell dinner in Vladivostok on Friday July 17.
Rally Tours NZ Ltd plans to rerun the Silk Road Tour in 2017 from London to Vladivostok for clients with their own vehicles, or in a hire Rally Tours’ 4x4 Land Cruiser. Also new for 2017 will be the chance to buy a seat-in-a-vehicle ticket and travel in a specially-built 4x4 luxury mini-van
with driver and tour leader.
Rally Tours will also offer modular tours on the trip with options for a seat-in-vehicle trip from Bukhara (Uzbekistan) to Bishkek (Kazakhstan) via the Pamir Highway.
A second modular tour taking in Mongolia, Siberia and the Baikal region will also be offered in 2017.
And if you can’t wait until then?
Rally Tours NZ Ltd will also operate two tours consecutively in May/June/July next year from Shanghai to London for both modern and classic cars, and from Vladivostok to London for 4x4s and motorcycles.
To find out more check out our website at www.rallytours.co.nz or call Deb Hollier on +64-27-258-6614
Discovering an old Russian cathedral near Volgograd
Greg Paul and Silk Road map in Khiva, Uzbekistan
Group of 3 x cars leaving Novotel Heathrow. Spectacular and vast Mongolia
Rally Tours Land Cruiser fords one of many rivers in Mongolia
A spectacular mountain near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan