Friday, 1 November 2013

Graham Higgins Stage Three Log

This log is made up of extracts from the emails that I sent home while I was on the third stage of the challenge. The gaps are where we had no WiFi. Stage three was from Novosibirsk, through Mongolia and eastern Russia to Vladivostok. Michael and I then went on into Japan by ferry and train while Les was relaxing in Greece.

Hopefully they will give a good picture of the journey as they should reflect exactly what I was thinking at the time.

Wednesday 8th May
Michael and I flew from Gatwick to Novosibirsk via Kiev on Air Ukraine. We had a three hour wait in Kiev. The flights were OK, I don't think flights are ever very enjoyable, especially as these were the cheapest we could get! We had the same meal on both legs of the journey! Les met us at the airport. It was quick and easy to clear customs and immigration.
Graham and Mike get their Jimny briefing

Novosibirsk is a typical big Russian city, the third biggest in Russia. Big industry, very grey, big potholes in the roads. Some buildings very modern and some very old and in a bad state of repair. We had the choice of making the journey through Mongolia or staying in Russia all the way. Mongolia is more unknown and Les has had some bad reports of the state of the roads. Russia may be easier, better roads, less hazardous......... we choose to go through Mongolia.

Friday 10th May
We have made it to Biysk, about 350kms from Novosibirsk. It took about 5 hours. More traffic than I expected, heavy industry all around coming out of Novosibirsk, smoky and dirty. Roads are tarmac some good and some not so good. We are still in quite populated areas, big fields being ploughed, still some patches of ice in some fields. Raining at times, very windy, not cold, a big contrast to yesterday which was hot and sunny. We have checked into an hotel, not luxury, quite old and rundown but clean. It has roughly a 100 rooms but it's not full. They still made a complete muddle of the room numbers. I don't know what they would do if the hotel was anywhere near full! We might eat in the restaurant tonight if weather is not good. Off to Tashanta tomorrow on the Mongolian border, about 600kms.

Saturday morning. 11th May
Power cut in hotel at breakfast. Lucky nobody was in lifts at the time. We are on 6th floor so have to carry bags down. Strange things for breakfast. Slept better last night, I must be getting over the jet lag. Very windy and quite cold, the wind blows up the sand and grit onto your face. It hurts.

Saturday evening.
Had a long time on the road today, we started about 9 in the morning and did about 350 miles. It took 10 hours as it was slow going along bad roads. 50 miles out of Biysk the terrain changed from flat grassland and forest to big mountains and narrow passes. The little Jimnys don't have much power up hill and are very heavily loaded. We were in the mountains for the rest of the day. We got to Kosh-Agash at 7.30 in the evening. Found a boarding room with 3 beds for the 3 of us. Its in a wood cabin with a communal kitchen and shower room. Its cold and very windy outside, but its warm in the room. 
Kosh-Agash is like a a real frontier town, just cabins and small shops. Rocky and gritty ground. We ate in a Restaurant that we were taken to by the owner of the room. The Restaurant opened specially for us. We had local food, spaghetti, vegetables and rice. The people have changed now from looking Russian to looking Mongolian. We have found out that the border is not open on Sundays so we will have a quiet day tomorrow. That's a shame as we did a lot of driving today to get a good start tomorrow across into Mongolia.

Sunday 12th May.
Got a good night's sleep. Drove to Tashanta, where the border post is, about 30 miles. The border post was closed, we were told that it opens at 9 tomorrow. Mongolia is closed on Sundays. 

We have come back to Kosh-Agash as there is nowhere to stay in Tashanta. Fill up with petrol and the cans as well as fuel may be difficult in Mongolia. We have been told it's 4 days to Ulan Bator, the capital, but we may take longer on the poor roads. It's about 1000 miles. We don't know how much of it will be tarmac. The weather is beautiful today, there was frost on the cars this morning and it was very cold, but its bright sunshine now, 5pm, and it must be 20 degrees in the sun. Walked around the town, maybe 10 shops. You can buy most anything but its all very utilitarian, picks and shovels and rope are obviously popular items.

Monday 13th May
Today we want to get to Olgii, maybe 200 miles. We crossed the border this morning. The whole process took about 2 hours. Much form filling and stamping forms and passing the form to the next person, most of the staff there did not seem to have anything to do. Big frontier post but almost no one crossing. Very windy today, sunshine, quite cold. Into the unknown........ 

Graham at the wheel

The roads turned immediately to rough gravel and rocks. Down to about 20 miles per hour, sometimes more, sometimes less. After about 40 miles we came to one very bad patch which we could not find a way through. Huge mountains of rocks in the road. Many tracks but none of them get anywhere. No signs how to get round them. We had to go back to a Yurt and ask. 

The people are friendly and helpful, warm inside house, just one room, big cooking pot in the middle. A man and his wife. What a bleak existence! They had a pen of goats but the Yurt is on the side of a big hill, completely windswept and miles from the next person. He showed us the way to go to get round the rough bit but it must have taken more than 1 hour all together. We found out after wards that it was where they are doing big roadworks, moving tons of rock and making cuttings because just after that the tarmac new road started. Brand new, the smoothest road you have ever seen. Booked into hotel which is very run down. Trying to get some hot water, bed like a plank of wood. I took 10,000 Mongolian Tugrugs out at the ATM and then found out it was worth about £4.50!

The bitter wind has dropped, not too cold now. Had a good meal in Mongolian Restaurant, most were closed. It cost £16 for the 3 of us with two beers each. Les has had his bank card stopped and the Sat Nav has packed up. This is a problem as there is not one signpost in Mongolia! And we have got another 800 miles to go to Ulan Bator.

Friday 17th May.
We have made it to Ulan Bator. It is a chaotic city, some very modern, some very poor and old. Big shanty towns on the outskirts. We arrived in the dark last night, which was a mistake. Traffic gridlocked, impossible to find your way around. Unlit road works, big potholes, no street names or signs. No English, all writing in Cyrrilic. People, cars and animals in the road all pushing and hooting. It was not surprising we could not find our way around.

We have a touch of comfort tonight staying in the Ramada hotel to make up for the very spartan conditions we have had for the last few days.

After Olgii, we made overnight stops in Khovd, Altai, Bayankhongor. We have had 5 days of really tough going, about 250 miles per day over dirt roads and tracks, through Fords and round boulders. Petrol stations few and far between. You can only do about 25 mph average. Some bits over the plains are ok at 40 mph, the dirt tracks are quite smooth. In the mountains you get Fords, big rocks, big ruts and are down to 5 mph at most. Huge trucks have to use the same tracks that we have driven. We have been doing 10 hour driving days to get across Mongolia in 5 days. 

It has been worrying when the track splits, as it often does. How do you figure out which way to go? Luckily most of the tracks end up coming back together in a few miles time, its just the locals trying to find a better way to go. The other fortunate thing about this, is that the country is so sparsely populated with so few towns that if you go in roughly the right direction then you are pretty sure the tracks will end up in the town you were aiming for. Certainly for us, navigating by the sun (which almost always shines in Mongolia) and a good map, we always got to where we wanted to go. And all of this was mixed with some completed sections of new super smooth tarmac road which is being built by the Chinese. One extreme to the other.

The hotels were very basic, poorly maintained but usually clean. The people did their best with few resources. Les made sure we ate the dried fruit that he had brought with us every morning for breakfast, I think he is very concerned about our bodily functions! Very nice friendly people, very helpful. It must be a very tough lonely life completely isolated and that is in summer.
Saturday 18th May.
Rest day in Ulan Bator today. Off north tomorrow back to the Russian border. I have a walk around the town, Les and Mike stay in the hotel sending emails and on Skype.

Monday 20th May.
Roads are improving, we are back on tarmac. We crossed back into Russia today at Kyakta. We drove about 70 miles to the border from Darkhan, where we stayed on Sunday night. Spent 3 hours at the border filling forms, having the cars searched by sniffer dogs and waiting for many officials to do things. It causes much confusion that both vehicles are owned by Les in the Logbook and we are driving his vehicle. They expect the driver to be the registered owner. Russian roads are better, only a few excursions off the road onto dirt tracks to get around road works, some bits are new and good tarmac, some bits are old with big potholes, but at least you can follow the tarmac so we are not in danger of getting lost! When they do road works they just put a big heap of soil to block the road at the start of the works and leave it up to you to go off onto the dirt at the side and find your way to get back onto the road after the road works. We did 120 miles from the border to Ulan-Ude, where we are staying. We are all well and off towards Chita tomorrow. My one regret for the trip was that we didn’t take a day to see Lake Baikal at this point but we didn’t know the state of the roads between us and Vladivostok, and that was about 2500kms, a bloody long way if the roads were not good. We had to be there by 1st June to get the vehicles loaded and shipped.

Saturday 25th May.
We are in Khabarovsk. Ulan-Ude and Chita were big cities but not nice, nothing much to see. The journey round the top of China was long and very isolated, 1300 miles Chita to Khabarovsk. Very poor people all the way but good new road, all tarmac except where road works are repairing damage from the winter snow melt. The damage is so severe it just washes away big chunks of road and the ice breaks the tarmac. Endless pine forest. The towns around the top were poor and dirty. The people have no hope, only crime and vodka, the police told us that when they looked after us in Magocha. Small wooden houses are in a terrible state. It must be a bleak existence when its 30 below in winter. It looked like the film set of one of those post apocalypse movies. Khabarovsk, by contrast, is a nice city, clean and neat with good architecture. Museums and a nice waterfront to the massive Amur River. We are in the Intourist hotel in the middle. It's an old soviet era building but has been made a bit more pleasant.

Tuesday 28th May
We got to Vladivostok at 2pm this afternoon. A reasonable drive from Kirovskly but many road works got us back on the dirt. The road works are huge moving mountains of earth. We went straight to the Suzuki agent and handed the cars over to get them serviced. They gave us lunch and coffee and took us to our hotel. We are doing a press conference at 11am tomorrow as publicity for Suzuki at the Agents and then taking the vehicles to the test track they have just outside Vladivostok. We are in the Vladivostok Hotel which has been recently renovated. It's a big old soviet era block but its ok. It's just as well its been renovated as it has some terrible reviews on trip advisor! I think we are here until June 5th so hopefully it will be ok. The weather is rain and very poor visibility today, quite common in Vladivostok apparently. It was hot and sunny yesterday. The vehicles get handed over to the shipping agent for preparation for containerisation to Vancouver on Thursday. Vladivostok is a busy big port, much traffic and congestion, many modern buildings and much less poor then other Russian cities. Many Japanese tourists.

Wednesday 29th May
We went to the Suzuki Agent this morning to do the press conference. It lasted about an hour and there were about twenty people there. Then to the new motor sport track which is being built. It's only half finished. I have never been photographed so much, cameras going all the time. Then we met the guy who is organising the shipping of the vehicles to Vancouver. Its still raining but its supposed to be nice tomorrow.

Thursday 30th May
We got the cars from Suzuki and took them to the Shipping Agent. The vibration on our car is still there. The cars were washed and then taken by lorry to be put into the container. 

The Shipping Agent took us to lunch to eat Shashlik, kebab meat and potato. He said it was the best Shashlic in Vladivostok, but it was tough. We then went to the Agents office where Les did a 5 minute phone interview with Julian Clegg which was on Radio Solent.

Saturday 1st June
Yesterday I did the walk around Vladivostok that is in the guide book. Mike and Les were too lazy. It was hot and Vladivostok is very hilly so it was tiring. The walk took me to the main station which is magnificent and recently renovated. The Trans Siberian express takes 7 days to get to Moscow. I walked past the house where Yul Brinner was born then went into the department store which was very old fashioned, past the docks with many Russian warships and then to the big arch in the gardens where you go to have your wedding pictures taken. Then I walked to the Funicular which takes you to the lookout place to get a good view of Vladivostok. Unfortunately I misread the map and walked too far uphill so I walked to the top of the Funicular and not the bottom and it was hot! I came down in the cable car. In the evening we had a meal in the Yacht Club right outside our hotel, which was nice. It was a lovely evening. Les and Michael are keen on boats so they liked it and were impressing each other with their boating knowledge.

Monday 3rd June
Today I went to buy a Japanese rail pass that is only for tourists. It's much cheaper than buying individual tickets. It will last me all through my stay in Japan. It took a lot of time to buy it as nobody in Vladivostok knew anything about it so it took a long time to find out where to get it from but I managed in the end. I am now trying to plan our rail journey through Japan with Michael. He wants to go to Kyoto, the old capital, and Hiroshima, then to Tokyo.

Tuesday 4th June
We walked to the ferry terminal to confirm our bookings to Japan. The terminal is close to the hotel. We leave for Japan on Wednesday. The Ferry is like a cross channel boat, it looks good in the brochure so we shall have to see what its like in real life. It sails overnight to Donghae in Korea where we can get off for a few hours and then sails overnight again to Sakaiminato in Japan. We land in the morning of the 7th. Then we went to the Submarine Museum, which is actually in an old submarine. Weather is warm and sunny, we walked to the promenade and had ice cream. It's evidently a very popular place for the people of Vladivostok. There was a big stage where a children's talent contest was being held. Mostly dancing and singing by many children in local costume. There are many modern buildings in Vladivostok but a lot of the roads are still very bad and the pavements have manhole covers missing and big holes! Also you have to be careful as many places do not have guard rails where you would have to have them in UK. We have eaten in the Chinese restaurant in the hotel most evenings we have been here but we will venture out tonight. Maybe to a Japanese restaurant, there is a lot of Japanese influence here.

Wednesday 5th June
Les has gone to the airport to fly to Greece. Michael and I go to the ferry port to go to Japan. What an adventure so far!

Log part two – Japan

Sunday 9th June
Mike and I got the ferry from Vladivostok, landed in Donghae in South Korea for a few hours and then went onto Sakaiminato. We got the train to Okayama, where we stayed for two nights. Japanese trains are fantastic, fast, clean and comfortable, always on time. Yesterday we went to Hiroshima. Mike wanted to visit the museum and memorials of the atom bomb. Today we have moved to Kyoto and visited temples and shrines. Kyoto is the old capital. Tomorrow we move on to Tokyo and Mike goes home. Japan is very hot and humid, which makes sightseeing tiring, when he has gone I can take it a bit easier. We have been rushing a bit as he only has three days in Japan. I can use my train pass and spend all day on the train if I want to, which is luxury. It's fascinating to see the train guard bowing to all the people every time he walks up the carriage, not at all like British Rail! Hotels in Japan are really cheap and food is good and cheap, in fact with a train pass you can get a cheap holiday in Japan. It is a very pleasant place, clean, tidy and well organised.

Friday 14th June
I went to Suzuki in Hamamatsu today. The journey from Tokyo took about ninety minutes each way, once again by bullet train. I met Mr Osamu Shibata, the European Sales and Marketing General Manager and Mr Kenta Gotoh his assistant. Mr Shibata spoke good English, Mr Gotoh not so good. I was a little unsure if they were pleased to see me or not, I don’t think they knew quite what to make of me. They had been told that I was coming but I don’t think they really thought that I would. I spent three hours at Suzuki. I told them all about our trip and the website and the charities that we were supporting and that we hoped to make a film of the trip, that we are all old and that the Jimnys had performed well all through the rough conditions. They gave me a tour of the Museum which was interesting but I didn't get a cup of coffee. I was thirsty. 

Mr Suzuki started out making weaving machines and moved onto putting small petrol engines into bicycles. The rest is history.

Tokyo station is huge. Its about 20 times the size of Waterloo with three levels of underground shopping mall interspersed with platforms. Even the Japanese get lost in Tokyo station!

I got to the station early and watched the cleaners do their work when the train turns round in Tokyo main station. There are two cleaner ladies to each carriage, all in pink trouser suits and white gloves and hats. They get on the train after the passengers have got off and the doors close behind them so the new passengers can't get on until they have finished. They spray the whole carriage and brush all the seats, wipe all the armrests and put clean head cloths on all the seats. They sweep and polish the floor and its all done with great formality, energy and attention to detail. Typically Japanese.

In the town, even the smallest road crossing or piece of work on the pavement has three or four people directing traffic with luminous wands. Goodness knows how they manage to pay all the people. Once again it's all done very correctly and with much bowing and ritual. The whole place is very structured and regimented, not by law but by culture and teaching. Very few houses have gardens. Tokyo is much more crowded than London, much more high rise. The cars are mostly small, square city cars, many hybrids. No pollution at all even with heavy traffic. There are many bicycles, no old or dirty cars. They have very strict tests for cars about six years old, so most are exported at that age and the Japanese buy new ones.

Saturday 15th June
The hotel has bicycles that you can borrow if you are staying there. They are town bikes with baskets and mudguards. All the bikes in Tokyo are like that. There are lovely cycle ways by the rivers, of which there are many. The roads all have wide pavements and cycle ways. They are so good you could play billiards on them. I cycled a long way all around the east side of Tokyo, Tokyo Disneyland and the Sea Life Centre, then round the docks and all the way to the middle of Tokyo. On the way back I went past a baseball stadium close to my hotel. It’s the stadium for the local amateur team. I went in and watched the last bit of the game, it's free to get in.

Sunday 16th June
I had another bike ride this morning but only did about ten miles due to sore bum, which is a pity as I would like to do more. I think I did too much on the bike yesterday. I might go to the baseball game tonight.

Monday 17th June
It has rained hard today so I took the Metro to the fish market. It’s the biggest in the world, every kind of fish you could imagine. I had Sashimi for lunch. There are many small casino type places in Tokyo with Pachinko and slots. Pachinko is a cross between an upright pinball machine and a slot machine. The places are very noisy with millions of metal balls crashing around. Very popular with the Japanese.

Tuesday 18th June
I cycled all the way to the Tokyo Skytree today, a big tower with fantastic views over Tokyo. I didn't really mean to go that far but just started out and kept going. I didn't go up it as there was a three hour wait and it cost twelve pounds. I cycled back. It was hot and humid. I stopped to watch quite a lot of the practice baseball game on the way back. I am getting to understand the rules a bit better now. Even the fans at the baseball game are very regimented, one team's supporters stand up and cheer and chant while the other set of fans sit quietly and do not interrupt, then they change over and take it in turns!

I have just realised one of the big plus points in Tokyo is that there are no cars parked on the roads, not even the side roads. It makes all the roads much nicer, you wonder where they all go. Some houses have parking spaces under them but the many huge apartment blocks must all have underground parking, they must be massive. The big car parks you see all have automated parking. You drive your car onto a tray and get out, it parks the car for you, moving the tray to a vacant space. When you come to collect it you type in the number of the space where it was parked and it fetches your car back to the exit. Even bikes are parked like that.
In Tokyo there are all sorts of ways they try to save space. There is great public service TV, everything from teaching you English to teaching you how to cross the road with a bicycle. When crossing the road, everybody waits for the little green man to light up even if there is no car in sight and the cars always give way to bikes and pedestrians.

Wednesday 19th June

Home today. I have had a fantastic time!


  1. Great report of the trip, the first part paints a bleak picture but the second in Tokio brigs back memory's of when I was there, does not sound like it has changed.

  2. I hope there is more of this to come, what a great diary read thanks for sharing.

    atb t ..