Uzbekistan Part 3


We woke at 6.30am to the same Uzbek pop playing full blast. We had the standard sausage and eggs boiled in oil with chai. We bought fuel from the truck stop owner, served in the traditional Uzbek way (from plastic 2 litre bottles) and set off towards Bukhara and Samarkand.

Bhukara was the only city in Uzbekistan where there was even a single petrol station purporting to sell petrol. However, the only petrol station in Uzbekistan with petrol did not have any petrol. The 150m long queue had formed to wait a full 6 hours for fuel to arrive later that day. In that queue, we found several Mongol Rally teams, including our friends in the trusty Ford Escort. Bathed and fed in Bhukara, they looked significantly cleaner than us at this point. Abandonning the queue, the next couple of hours was spent in convoy searching for fuel in the standard way; finding someone’s garage, haggling and squeezing old Fanta bottles full of an unknown liquid into our petrol tank. We made sure to fill a jerry can this time, enough to get us out of Uzbekistan, before we set off for Samarkand.


Samarkand contained, undoubtedly, the best value hostel we saw on the trip. Our $10 per person bought us unlimited tea and watermelon, breakfast and en suite double rooms. It bought us relaxation in the vine-shaded, cushion-filled courtyard and the company of long-distance travellers of a similar kind to Mongol Ralliers; cyclists travelling from Spain to China, hitchhikers travelling from China to Italy and so forth. It was here too that we were reunited with Just Add Water, reforming the core of the fateful Turkmen convoy.


Samarkand is a beautiful city, but it is not quite set up for tourism. The nearest bar/restaurant was an (admittedly very pleasant) 45 minute walk away (our hostel was situated in the centre of Samakand, 5 minutes from the Registan). The Blues Café, Lonely Planet’s sole recommendation, was a highly idiosyncratic pastiche of what you might find in London under a similar name. They played Joss Stone tracks, served cold beer and had pictures of Michael Jackson on the walls. It was a comfortable, reasonably priced evening nevertheless. They did have a power cut and run out of vegetables (despite almost every menu item containing vegetables) but we made our own fun, provoking Jack into telling long lies and playing “No More Women”; a parlour game that is not as sexist as it sounds.

We took a taxi back to the hostel and drank the whiskey that we had gifted the Ford Escort for helping us escape hell. Dom went to sleep fully dressed, spread eagled and diagonal across the bed. When Steve tried to move him, Dom gripped the bed tightly and held his positon without waking. The limo suffered drunken damage, losing one flagpole, misplacing the air from its tires and carelessly mislaying some of its paint. The absent paint spelt out a pair of unfortunate words. The first word was “limo”. The second rhymes with “acrobatic stunts”. We suspected the Escort team, it closely matched their Modus Operandi (childish pranks. The bastards.)



Overnight, someone had nicked our other flagpole. We also realised that both the basil and the bonsai were no more. They had wilted irreparably. Their leaves were shrivelled and brown like the papery testicle-skin of an aged cyclist (note: if you are an aged cyclist, check testicles to render image more vivid). The stems looked like the stems of a dead plant. The basil probably would not have made a Bolognese even slightly more aromatic. The bonsai was dead. Its leaves had all fallen off, leaving it benuded and claw-like. No amount of mouth-to-mouth would revive either plant. “Frere bread” said Jack, with a mouth full of dry soil. Wiring the plants up to the battery and jump-starting them proved inefficacious “it’s not the battery” said Ollie, scratching his head. Dom: “Leaf ‘em alone. This is part of their root-ine.” Dom looked over at Steve for support “sorry, I only do political and nautical puns. Plus, I don’t think they’re just depressed. I can sea from here that you’ve gone way overboard, sailed too close to the wind; they just needed a vote of confidence, coup-dn’t you Just elect a suitable method of deposing of them?” replied Steve. Yes, the plants were deceased. We decided that a burial seemed somehow inappropriate. “If anything we ought to do the opposite!” After collecting the scattered plants, we concluded that throwing them into the air was far too undignified a way for them to go.

We offloaded the bonsai onto the owner of the hostel by convincing him that it was “just resting” and chucked the Basil in a nearby bush.


To mourn our loss, we decided to revenge ourselves upon the Ford Escort. Sun cream on every surface upon which a hand might unwittingly rest. A roll of toilet paper unreeled inside the vehicle. A grinning portrait of Dom in permanent marker on the driver’s side wing mirror. A cigarette glued to the rubber Donkey, Hendrix, which had straddled their roof for several thousand miles. We also stole Hendrix’s voice, glued their windscreen wipers to their windscreen, pried the word “flight” from their car (and glued it onto ours). But we did not piss in their tent. Then, as they left, we egged the bastards. That’s what friends are for. One of the eggs sailed in through the window and hit Elsie in the face without breaking. It came back at us. The circle of life.

We also gave Just Add Water the front badge from the Rover; with its Viking longboat it fitted more closely with the theme of their trip (boats and stuff). They in turn gave their Skoda badge to Sam the motorcyclist. They all left that morning for the Pamir highway.

With everyone gone, we chose to stay in Samarkand an extra night. We used the time to source a new drive shaft for the Rover, postulating that the bodge would not last the remaining several thousand miles. Ollie’s brother Alex co-ordinated from home and we were confident we could time the part to arrive to Almaty just as we arrived. Parcels2Go was the reliable household name we chose to stake the success of our trip upon.

That afternoon, Dom and Jack headed over to the bazaar. Jack had been searching since Istanbul for a long flowing “ethnic garb” to cover his supple form. When he returned, his form remain exposed to piercing sun from which he desired respite. The garb would need to wait another day. They were more successful in the search for sandals. The hardest part was finding anything that would fit Jack’s massive feet. In the whole of Samarkand’s largest bazaar, there were only two sets that fit Jack. The pair we settled on did not fit Jack. But the men who sold them to us repeatedly pointed to one among their number, shouting

“Jim Carey!”

“We’ll take them” decided Dom, in spite of the tremendous absence of style in the black, silver and red fake Adidas slippers. Jim Carey is one of Dom’s favourite actors.

To celebrate our success, Jack went for a shave. “I want to be shaved with a cut throat razor. By another man.” This had been Jack’s mantra since well before Turkey.


Walking back towards the hostel we met a straggly group of white men with beards and “traditional” shirts. It was, of course, a Mongol Rally team. But we had seen this particular team 3 times previously during the rally, despite taking a route that deviated from theirs by several thousand miles. It was one of the Nissan Micra teams from Baku, from the Turkey-Georgia order, from a Romanian petrol station. They were the saints who lightened our luggage to the score of two camping chairs. Jack and Dom, temporarily brain damaged by the astounding coincidence of the situation, failed to reclaim the chairs. Our Mongol Rally is littered with heart-rending tragedies and devastating regrets.

Back at the hostel, we relaxed with yet another Mongol Rally team. These guys had been at the hostel for 5 days already with water in the engine of their car. They were getting pretty good at chess by the time we met them.


Rice pudding for breakfast. The stuff that dreams (and probably also clouds) are made of. We used our morning to collect Ollie’s bag from a hotel a short distance from our hostel, send postcards and see some of the sites. This was the second time on the trip so far that we had chosen to engage in such activities. In much the same fashion as our attempt to see the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, we got round to seeing a small chunk of the magnificent Registan before we got into the car and left. We put $5 into the shirt pocket of the guard and walked into a fairly attractive square. There was a partially restored mosque on one side, cordoned off from the public. We walked around the cordon and had a look inside – it was OK. Dom picked up a bit of the mosque that had fallen off and attached it to the car. Steve tried to get up one of the minarets but just ended up in the staffroom, drinking coffee and laughing uproariously at jokes the staff made in Uzbek. We did try to sit and take it in. “This,” said Steve gazing around, eyes shining, “is shit”. Then we went to Tashkent, with a view to getting to Kazakhstan that evening.

The roads in Samarkand are really awful. There are no road markings, very, very large potholes. There are alleys wide enough to allow a single car to pass that are bordered by deep gullies – somehow, the traffic flows in both directions along them whilst weddings merrily go on in amidst the struggling cars. These elements form an essential part of getting around Samarkand.


The road to Tashkent was uneventful but for frequent police checks. Once we arrived on the outskirts of Tashkent, our engine over-heated. The fuse protecting our fans had melted, calling for an impromptu bout of roadside rewiring. With very little spare wire and only a few scraps of tape left, this was a bit of a struggle. The limo, as always, had also pulled in a small crowd, who thronged Steve and Ollie as they attempted to move around the car. Overcoming even these harsh realities (strangers removing parts from their hands in an attempt to help, rapping Russian at the disconsolate duo, cheerfully engaging them in conversation), the pair were able to rewire the fuse in front of the radiator, a move they had been planning for some time, in order to facilitate better air flow.

We made it to the border before dark. It was a 24 hour border for pedestrians, but appeared permanently closed to cars. We did try to drive through it anyway, from a couple of different angles, but the concrete blockade and armed guards eventually bettered our mild invasion. We then took an 80km detour to Yallama, the nearest border-crossing for cars. The border was quiet and the crossing simple. We did enjoy befriending the guards, several of who scribbled what we can only guess to be wishes of good luck onto our roof. Meanwhile, a sniffer dog sat down in the driver’s seat of the car. He gazed longingly through the windscreen. We are convinced that the dog was temporarily intoxicated by the spirit of adventure that must have been in strong in the cockpit of our machine.

While Ollie did his paperwork, Jack, Steve and Dom witnessed an unsettling event in the office. A border guard confronted a lady selling beer. Then, a person attempting to cross the border foolishly stood toe to toe with the same border guard and yelled into his face. This lead to that person being escorted from the building. Steve thought that this looked fun and was tempted to give it a go, but we pacified him with a Gameboy that had Tetris inserted. The trials and tribulations of that tempestuous game caused such a commotion from us that the border guards moved to confiscate the offending item. We hurriedly a little further moved away but were periodically pestered by the border guards until we left the country.

Later, we were in Kazakhstan. The other side of the border-crossing into Kazakhstan is a fine sight. The reception area is with resplendent with dust-soaked gravel that rises gracefully with every footstep. Two fourteen year olds with truly remarkable sales skills, perched precariously on a fence will attempt to sell you insurance. The corrugated metal fences and absence of any tacky “Welcome to Kazakhstan” type signs create an immersive experience – it really feels like you have entered Kazakhstan.

So there we were, in Kazakhstan, at night. We tried to find somewhere to camp. Our usual strategy is to drive down lanes and tracks that we hope will go nowhere in particular. Upon one such excursion in obfuscating darkness, we stumbled into, and sharply reversed back out of, what appeared to be a back-of-the-lorry, counterfeit fruit deal. We kept on into the night until we reached a small village.

There is a certain type of café/restaurant that also doubles as a ‘guesthouse’. You can tell these by the tables, which are like beds with a removable wooden rectangular central piece. Most of these places will allow you to sleep outside, providing blankets and pillows. It’s actually pretty comfortable, is always outstandingly cheap and makes it easy to get breakfast in the morning. We found such a place in the village. Upon arrival, Jack and I walked into reception to try and find the owner. She strenuously ignored us for as long as possible, returning after a few minutes to answer each of our questions in turn. Later, we drank with the locals. They only knew one word in English; “OK”. They drunkenly only referred to us as “Brad”. We later discovered that this meant “brother”. At the time, we just thought they were confused. The owners eventually kicked the locals out and waited outside the restaurant until everyone was out of sight. Dogs barked nearby. Welcome to Kazakhstan, we said to ourselves as we drifted off. Welcome to Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistan Part 2

In Turkmenistan, the petrol is incredibly cheap, available at regular intervals at politely staffed petrol stations, many of which take Visa. Perhaps because of this, the locals have driven the roads ragged. In Uzebekistan, the contrary problem is evident. We did not see a single petrol station selling petrol for the whole of our time in that country. Even if we could find petrol, we also could not find a single ATM from which we could withdraw cash to pay for it. Perhaps because of this, the roads are pre-eminently passable.

As a result, whilst the car was being dismantled with home-welded hammers, Jack and Dom were walking around in 40C heat trying to withdraw money.

After being directed to four different banks, the 5th bank that Jack tried took VISA. The maximum withdrawal amount was equivalent of $100 (USD), which gets you 237,800 SOM in local currency. It felt like monopoly money and the 200 SOM notes almost had the same value, being worth just 5p each. Jack found out his pockets weren’t big enough and required a plastic bag to hold all the dough.

piles of uzbek cash

Returning to the bank with a second debit card, Jack and Dom were excited to be informed that all of the cash money dollar had gone home for lunch or something. A lengthy trek to a second bank was rewarded with Dollars available at a 6% commission. They returned empty-handed and grabbed some lunch from a local café. With no idea of what anything was on the menu, they received dumplings, bread and cold water for two for the grand total of £3.75.

That night we threw wads of cash at each other in a hotel room. It was like that scene in Mission Impossible when they have pulled off the heist, except each wad of cash was worth about as much as a roll of toilet paper (which is admittedly more valuable the further East you go).


To celebrate, we walked around Nukus looking for beer and food. Nukus is an interesting city, I suppose. It is characterised by soviet fetishism for geometry (without the grandeur) coalescing with an absence of concern for practicality or finishing things. That is to say: it’s square and ugly. The roads switch capriciously between thick dust concealing large holes and fair tarmac. Nukus covers an irritatingly large geographic area: a diffuse suburban grid with no clear centre or public transport, around which you may occasionally happen upon ornamental squares. These squares are always partly overgrown, partly dying, giving them the unkempt feel of the undead. Whereas in a European city, a central square will often be framed by smart flats topped with penthouses, Nukus’ squares are bordered by the occasional, jutting apartment building placed asymmetrically to everything else and maybe an “OK, go on then” grade kebab restaurant. It was at such an establishment that we ate kebabs. After we had finished our kebabs, six bowls of plain rice arrived.


We got our tow eye fixed first thing in the morning and repeated our cash search before moving off en-route to Bukhara. It was around then that we realised that the petrol shortage was endemic. We did, however, stop at tens of petrol stations before sluggishly arriving at this conclusion. We saw a petrol station purporting to have petrol just once in Uzbekistan: as you will later discover, this was not a fruitful discovery.


Reclining in the leather chairs of the Rover, looking out through tinted windows, we used philosophy to deduce several possible causes of the fuel shortage:

  1. Uzbekistan exports so much fuel that it has caused a semi-permanent domestic fuel shortage
  2. It was cotton picking season in Uzbekistan and all the machinery was using up the fuel (Uzbekistan, #4 exporter of cotton)
  3. Supply and Demand were actually in perfect equilibrium, it was just the case that, given intense uncertainty over whether this supply would continue, locals would drain petrol stations each time they were filled (Economics 101)
  4. A fleet of Rover limousines had passed by recently
  5. The petrol was “in the post”

Nevertheless, it is fairly simple to come by “Benzin” in Uzbekistan if you just implement these tried and tested methods:

  1. Pull a hauntingly forlorn facial expression whilst waiting by a petrol pump in an abandoned fuel station.
  2. Pull up to groups of men you find throughout populated areas and shout “Benzin!? Eh!? Eh!” at them out of the window. Two will peel away from the main group after a heated discussion and lead you away. The car they climb into will probably be a cream Lada from circa 1990. They will take you to a garage full of 2 litre plastic bottled full of yellowish liquid and there a man, who obviously occasionally drinks his own stock, will charge you either an astronomical or a suspiciously reasonable price.
  3. Drive with your horn held down with one team member’s entire upper body out of the passenger-side window (a sun roof will work just as well) violently waving an empty jerry can
  4. Drill, refine, repeat
  5. Look for empty plastic bottles by the side of the road, these signal “fuel here”

On the move, with barely any fuel in the tank, we were overtaken by a Mongol Rally team. They sped past us, one team member with his entire upper body out of the passenger window violently waving an empty jerry can (that’s how it’s done, we nodded sagely to one another, impressed). As they went by, they gestured that they had to drive quickly in order to get to fuel soon, as they were running low. Our nodding became more confused. Sort of half circles in lateral and vertical directions.

The Lonely Planet, anecdotes and other dubious information sources had put ‘Plov’ on our minds. It was getting late and we thought that it would be a good time to try and find it. For four men travelling without the comforts of home, this was only natural. We were told we should try it in varied locations, as it would be different every time. Different ‘stans and regions spice their Plov up in different ways and some places make it slow whilst others turn the heat up and get it going quickly. We had done a couple of quick web searches but came to understand that the local women would do it better than we could by ourselves; they’ve had the practice and know the secrets, passed down from their mothers. With some embarrassment incurred, we had searched in vain for Plov in Nukus. It is hard to know who or how to ask for such an intimate thing and we imagined there might be a level of resentment towards foreigners impinging. Dom, having heard we would not have any trouble getting himself some, was getting quite heated about the fruitlessness of our search and by now was feeling quite un(P)loved.
We were hungry. Our experience of Uzbek food to date had really only involved kebabs and dumplings. We tried two separate places to find that they had only one large frozen fish each. This was surprising. We carried on, only to see the Rally team that had passed us earlier. Together we ate at a roadside restaurant and became friendly with a man purporting to be a manager at a major oil corporation. After beers, spaghetti soup and kebabs, we split with the Jimny and the other team, who intended to make it to Bhukara that night, whilst we preferred to camp.


The light faded quickly. Without full beams on, it was impossible to see the road. Seeing the road was essential for avoiding the pot holes. The Uzbek Pot Hole only comes out at night; this is how it evades repair. It can be seen leaping from one side of the road to the other in order to trap its prey; its staple food being the common or garden variety Rover Limousine. Growing tired of these shenanigans, we searched with increasing urgency for somewhere to pull over to sleep. A track appeared and disappeared on the left; “track to Starboard” yelled Jack. This confused Dom, who was not used to conversing in nautical terms. We drove past it. “Is that another one?” asked Dom, just a metre or two later. “Uhm I don’t –“. Dom pulled off the road.

Had it been daylight, he would have remembered that this road led through a desert and that deserts predominantly contain sand. He would have further realised that the limousine is averse to sand, as we had proved driving to the door to hell. Following this chain of logic, he would not have driven the limousine directly into a deep well of soft sand. With its rear end obstructing traffic and its front end mired, the limo was in a tight spot. “We’ll push it out” said Dom hopefully. We’ll push the 2 ton limousine out of the sand. “Prove me wrong!” he cried defiantly. Leaning to, the four pushed the limo. At first it seemed hopeless. Then they all heard it creak. It was hopeless. The creaking was Dom’s defiance being crippled.

It’s not every day that you see an English limousine parked horizontally across a road in Uzbekistan. In the middle of the night. In the middle of nowhere. Either this fact, or the fact that we were obstructing traffic in both directions, lead to a crowd forming. It was a minor circus. Lorry drivers held down their horns, whilst people mobbed the scene, shouted in broken English, Russian and Uzbek. The headlights of vehicles parked haphazardly across the road criss-crossed the area with intense beams of dazzling light.

Someone volunteered to tow us out. It was relatively easy and the limo popped right out of the desert and back onto the road. Then it hit the car towing it. “Dom, what the fuck!” “$50, $50!” chanted the baying mob. We (Dom) had grazed the bumper of the white sedan who had so kindly offered to help us out. “$50!” Dom reached into the front of his shorts. Uzbek women, watching, giggled hysterically. He pulled out his …wallet. We paid up and left.
Just a few miles down the road Jack spotted a truck stop and suggested asking if we could sleep there. Adjusting a sentence we found in the “Romance” section of our phrasebook, we asked if we could stay the night. The price shocked us all. It came in at 75p per person.


After a beer, Jack and Ollie were in with the locals who promptly gave them shots of vodka. They put on a video of an Uzbek pop star and we all went to bed.

Uzbekistan Part 1

Just like in Mission Impossible, our day also had room for a high-speed car chase. Sweating, salt-encrusted and hoarse, we screeched across the border at around 3mph, pushing the overlong heap of metal and fake luxury wood. Then we pushed the extravagantly inconvenient ex-funeral accessory to border guards who searched it. Then we pushed the crippled container of superfluous leg-room through a further two passport checks. Then we pushed it into Uzbekistan.


In between these exhilarating happenings, we also managed to snap a tow eye off another car; the Suzuki Jimney that had decided to stick with us (seemingly out of equal parts of abject pity and good character). They got what was coming to them. The bastards.

In retrospect, it is hard to believe that the following events also occurred on that same day, but the day did actually continue to happen to us.

After driving past an Uzbeki necropolis (and mistaking it for an ornate village for small subterranean people) we swam in a dirty pool of water. At the time, it was a literal oasis at the end of a literal desert. Seven teams celebrating not having had their balls twisted slowly in hydroxidised vices in a Turkmen prison, running for the cool caress of that pungent liquid pit. Someone brought out shampoo and it got weird. But it also got dandruff free! The locals; skinny, underwear-clad teens, seemed perplexed at our joyous reunion with fluid.

Arguably less filthy, we pulled into an Uzbek village. It took only a few seconds for us to get stuck, swarmed by drunk, generous men offering us places to stay (all later to be contradicted by furious wives unseen). It was a step up from the mob upon entry to Turkmenistan, putting the Uzbeks in first place for spontaneous mobbing. We drank cold beers before moving on in search of a place to camp.


For reasons unknown at the time of writing, the Ford Escort team decided at this point that they did not want to tow us any further that night. So they heartlessly left Jack and Dom to defend the defunct death-stalker through the night beside a mosquito-infested, lorry-frequented marsh by a roundabout with a police checkpoint on it. They took Steve and Ollie with them and subjected them to a meatless lentil concoction. The bastards.

In the morning, they awoke Dom and Jack, who had writhed into twisted, cramped wrecks within the hull of the lifeless limo carcass, by driving directly into the side of it.

Keen to fix our beloved Rover we made an early start and headed towards Nukus. Being towed 20km to the outskirts felt like a dream: the inertia switch did not trip, the tow rope didn’t snap and the undercarriage did not bottom-out once. The search was on to find a trusty garage capable of returning our car to its former glory. Or, more realistically, to turn it into a rattling, tattered, dusty box capable, at the very least, of movement under its own power. Fortunately the first back road we took lead us directly to a complex of 20 garages; unbelievable right!? As we pulled into the complex, our tow rope snapped for the last time of trip (touch wood! Though in amongst the faux mahogany of the limo you’d be hard-pressed) and a mob quickly gathered around us.


The shit roads in Turkmenistan had also taken their toll on the other rally cars in the convoy. The Ford Escort had leaked power steering fluid all over the power steering belt, which consequently meant their steering was a bit on the heavy side; making their towing skills the previous day even more admirable. The Skoda Felicia had a knocking sound coming from a loose rear wheel bearing. The Suzuki Jimny’s rear shock absorber had become detached due to a bracket shearing. And finally the BMW R80 had a bit of a birthday with an oil change. Luckily there were plenty of garages for everyone.

One mechanic took an immediate shine to the Rover and ushered us towards his pad. The space in the garage was occupied with a modern car undergoing an engine rebuild, suspended in the air on a large hydraulic car jack. This boosted our confidence in the mechanic’s technical ability somewhat, although, at the same time the distinct lack of tools, his arsenal consisting of only a few spanners and a variety of different sized hammers, left us pondering whether the Rover would make it out alive. No one ever likes talking about Health & Safety, especially with the ridiculously strict regulations that govern in the UK, but it is probably worth a mention in this instance. Firstly, the Health part: every mechanic was seen with a cigarette constantly burning in their mouth, which to begin with off is not good for you anyway, but also meant that their visibility was impaired with smoke; not ideal when considering the Safety part. Additionally they all had what appeared to be tea leafs under their tongue to give them a further nicotine hit, therefore, considering the hot weather, it was no surprise these guys were fairly chilled out. Now the safety part. The car was jacked up in order to take the front driver’s side wheel off to fix the driveshaft, which is perfectly reasonable. However, the fact that the car was on a slope, with a vintage trolley jack, jacked so high that one rear wheel was off the ground and the car was put in neutral, was not safe at all.


With a dodgy handbrake and the herds of people leaning on the car (and the jack), there was no chance any of us were going underneath the 2 ton car, even with Ollie’s eagerness to get involved. Last but not least, putting your whole head into any area that has been thoroughly doused in petrol while your bottom lip supports a lit cigarette is probably, for reasons inexplicable in even our excellent Russian, ill-advised.


Our Rover 827 Haynes Service and Repair Manual outlined that driveshaft removal was a 3 out of 5 spanner difficulty rating, which detailed that it was “fairly difficult – suitable for a competent DIY mechanic”.

Although useless to the mechanics it enabled us to gain a bit of knowledge and supervise their every move. Surprisingly, the three mechanics worked on the car following each step flawlessly; it was as if they had an Uzbek copy in the back or had worked on Rover’s for years. The ABS speed sensor didn’t faze them, they didn’t even require specialist tools such as a ball joint splitting tool; these guys were obviously pro’s. Using a combination of pin-point accuracy and sheer power, the hammering skills of these Uzbek mechanics dismantled the complex mechanisms responsible for steering, breaking and suspending the car; who needs all the tools huh! It was like Ollie had travelled to meet the wizened Central Asian Shaolin master mechanic, the man who forces you to look within the car and cast away all of the extraneous distractions.

In no time at all, the driveshaft was removed and laid out on the floor. The three of us studying Mechanical Engineering had already thought about how to fix the driveshaft and it required a welder, an example of which was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately at this point the mechanic’s son, Karalpak, turned up and despite only being 14 years old was able to translate our thoughts to his father. It was unclear whether or not the father fully understood, or took any notice of us at all, but he began searching for a solution. After a short walk around the garage kicking bits of scrap metal, he picked up a rusty old tube, quickly checked that it fit over the driveshaft and turned to us to give a nod of approval. Once he had instructed another mechanic on the master plan, the boss went for a well-deserved lie down in the back. The other chap scuttled away and soon returned with a grinder to cut a section of the tube off to be used to couple the two parts of the driveshaft back together.


Despite it appearing as if the complex of garages were all in competition with one another, it turned out that they did in fact all work in union, like a symbiotic mechanical hive of hives. Each owned a specialised tool or piece of equipment that they could offer to each other to complete the huge variety of challenges they faced on aggregate. Our guy had a suspension clamping tool that allowed us to dismantle the driver’s side front suspension strut (that we had replaced on the side of the road in Turkmenistan) and insert the aluminium spacer above the spring to raise the car back up. A job Ollie couldn’t do without crawling underneath the 2 ton human trap.


Meanwhile the mechanic had scuttled off again to a mate’s garage with the driveshaft and the tube to get it welded together. Half an hour later he returned and the driveshaft was in one piece. The two beaded welds were questionable! Nevertheless the mechanics reassembled the front of the car around the bandaged shaft and she was back to her former glory. It was as if she had just rolled off the Rover production line back in 1994… This might be a slight exaggeration but at the time our hallucinations were most likely caused by severe dehydration. Anyhow, after all of the pain, after hours of waiting in the draining sunlight, the car was fixed. Thumbs up were given and Ollie stepped up to test drive the car. He made it 10 feet before stopping. The bloody driveshaft had snapped!
Round 2 – the speed fix. The mechanics stepped up their game ten-fold. Miraculously, the driveshaft was out in a record time of 5 minutes; setting a new PB compared to his debut run of 50 minutes. Keen to restore his street credit amongst his fellow mechanics the boss dealt with the fix himself this time.

A quick visit to his mates and the driveshaft once again returned in one piece. However, this time the welds have extra beef added and two countersunk holes either side of the fracture had been drilled in order to add reinforcement pins. Not a bad idea and it looked far more promising this time round. Two random bolts were painstakingly selected from the floor somewhere nearby where the mechanic was squatting and tapped into place. BUT rather than returning to his mate’s place to weld the bolts into place (a sensible option), he decided to create his own rivets. It was as if he was a psychopathic serial killer hitting his victim (in this case our driveshaft) with a hammer to weaken them (or in this case to weaken the welds) and continuing to hit them an abnormal number of times well beyond the required limit (further weakening the welds).


That was the sole piece of metal that stood between us and motion, and here were two mechanics taking it in turns to hit it with homemade hammers with all their strength. Anyhow, after spectating (what felt like) the exaggerated fury-killing of a motionless innocent, the driveshaft repair was finished and once again the car was reassembled back to former glory.

Standing over the gleaming (read: filthy) machine, the mechanic stared Ollie confidently in the eyes as if to say “go on then asshole, try your best to break it now”. So he did. Ollie jumped in the car, reversed her out and then throttled it, spinning the wheels on the spot and racing off into the distance. The logic here was that we didn’t want to drive 20km down the road and have it snap on us, so best to rev the bollocks off it now to see whether the repair holds. It seemed to be ok. The mechanic also had a drive and drove her hard; this eagerness to use all the horses was probably fuelled by his frustration of us bragging to him and all of his mates for the last 5 hours about how quick it could go. The car returned to the garage still in a driveable state. Even though we were still feeling fairly sceptical about the fix, we were very thankful to Karalpak, his father and team of mechanics for giving it their best in fixing our steed.


The Rover was back on the road! Great success!

Turkmenistan Part 2

The day started with flies delicately alighting on our faces in the room that some 15 Mongol Ralliers shared the floor of. Our car alarm had woken us twice in the night, like a new-born child signalling oncoming sickness. Weary, sighing, we had risen to settle it back down and prevent further unexplained wailing. They say that the wise man listens to the omens of the desert, but western cynicism had closed our minds to the language of the earth. And to the language of the Rover 827si Limousine.

Starting the car as the sun rose, we set out on the 250km drive to the Turkmen border with Uzbekistan. It was the final day of our visas – we had to leave the country before the border closed at 6pm. I suppose the consequences of failing to do so were kept from our thoughts by a cousin of the curtain of self-deception that had adorned the decade long dictatorship in Turkmenistan. Curtains like these can fall with the snap of a rod.


Ahead of us was a single straight road through yellow sands, heaped perfectly carelessly, endlessly. The air bakes the back of your throat at midday. The Rover started with the baritone explosions it had so faithfully contained for 20 years. It had showed no noticeable difference in performance from the humid, fragrant pines of Austria to the hostility of the ‘stans. A convoy of 7 teams of ralliers, sandwiched the limousine like a protective battalion. We were filled with the kind of unobtrusive optimism that had buoyed us all along.

It was probably no single pothole that brought about the challenges that we faced that day. It was probably not the speed we were travelling at that particular moment, nor the angle at which we struck that final tarmac lesion.

Camels, unencumbered, browsed the resilient foliage that had at great pains prospered in those harsh sands, infrequent rains. I have heard that even a very marginal change in burden could cause a fracture in the vertebrae of their spinal columns, snapping that (suddenly obviously) fragile rod; ending communication between the mind of the animal and the legs that carry them forward, ending their careers as devices for transportation, rendering them into meaningless, useless weight.

The pothole that broke the limo’s drive shaft occurred after only 30 minutes of driving. It struck us hundreds of kilometres (in every direction) from any city, in the harshest desert of one of the harshest regions of the northern hemisphere. It broke one of the few parts of the car we could not repair or replace. It left us with 8 hours to transport our immobile, 2 ton limousine 200km to the border. The rare lorries that passed along that road carried gravel; there was no chance of a tow-truck or empty flatbed lorry. The rally cars we convoyed with were all crap. Mongol Rally cars being, by definition, inappropriate to cross such terrain even under their own power.

It began with an occasional scraping noise, as though the sump was dragging along the road. Jack and Dom, sitting in the front, strained to make out the source of the noise. They were tense but not overly worried. It was not until dense white clouds billowed out from under the car that they realised something was very wrong; we would later discover that these opaque woollen emissions were created as suspension fluid gushed onto the heated components in and around the brake disc. The car lost power instantaneously, went limp and silent and coasted to the side of the road.


“The suspension casing has cracked. The shock absorber itself has cracked too”. The revelations came slowly. Ollie spoke from inside the wheel arch, his manner reminiscent of a sombre, fastidious dentist. “We have a spare, but it is very difficult to replace. And it will be a different height because of the adjustments we made. We can do it though. We have no choice, really.”

At this point, we had merely encountered a minor set-back. Then;

“The drive shaft has snapped”

Steve turned to Dom “that’s Game Over”.

“We cannot even tow it like this, even if we do replace the suspension.”

The suspension had snapped on the driver’s side, dropping the weight of the car onto the drive shaft, which connects the driving force of the motor to the wheels. This solid, inch-thick metal rod was in turn, after a brief resistance, shorn into two parts. And not in a way that duct tape and cable ties could help.


During the inspection and subsequent attempted repair, the limo broke our jack, an axel stand and one further jack. The repair was hindered also by the fact that the driver’s side wheel was almost impossible to remove. Even if the wheel came off and the suspension was fixed, the drive shaft would wreak havoc if left unattached whilst the car was moving.

Relentlessly practical, Sam (who was part of the convoy, on a motorcycle) and Ollie guessed that if the shaft could be cradled in place, the car could be towed. They used seldom pieces of scrap wire to create a mesh-like cage. The success of a tow depended on those few pieces of wire holding for the rest of the journey. The success of a tow also depended on someone being willing to latch a motionless funeral escort to the rear of their car.


It was at this point that a saviour stepped up. A team with wrecking balls for testicles and carbon fibre nerves. They didn’t just have grit, they had diamond dust. A team with such minor disregard for their car that they would take sharp, angular pieces of metal and smash their vehicle’s body work, would ram their car into anything, would offer to tow a broken limousine through 200km of 47 C desolation across roads so poor you could only really have found them leading from the door to hell: all in one day. A team willing to risk the wrath of the state of Turkmenistan.

They were using a mosquito net to catch dragonflies through their sun roof, driving at speed up and down the road when we asked for the ‘favour’. Once we were ready to go, our Blue Peter bodge holding together both the car and our sanity, they discarded the captured dragonflies and hooked us up.

Meanwhile, the VW polo team surfed one of the Rover’s discarded middle chairs, dragged behind their car, along a parallel dirt track. We had taken out carpets, chairs and other debris to lighten the hulking Rover. We also removed the heaviest team member: Dom was to ride out the escape from Turkmenistan in the middle seat of Just Add Water’s Skoda Felicia.

The death toll of damaged items spiralled upwards as we travelled. Tow ropes were incapable of holding the weight of the car. We broke three ropes, snapping them in new and interesting ways a total of 12 times. Additionally, we learnt on that day that tow eyes are incapable of pulling great weights over roads that introduce huge resistance; half of our tow eye was ripped off and the Ford Escort’s tow eye suffered a similar fate. It was their rear axle that bore the limousine’s bucking weight for the majority of the trip.


We also had to stop every time the inertia switch was triggered, we leapt from the car in a synchronised routine evocative of a pit stop crew. That switch was triggered more than 15 times, each time signalling an impact that the car believed to be equivalent to a crash. The rending, booming collisions, the suspension completely compressing and punching the entire chassis with each new undulation in the road surface, the orchestral crescendo of whining parts, vibrating and juddering. All of these agreed with the frequent sermon of the inertia switch (“this is probably bad for the car”).

And the road truly was catastrophic. At one point the limo was completely submerged in a pothole. At another point, we stopped to boil a kettle using the geothermal energy of the Earth’s core, which could be glimpsed through one sizeable crack. Ruptured wheels lined the road like some nightmare parody of a grand prix circuit. Every subsequent setback counted against our chances of making it to the border. Every ten minutes we experienced that scene from Mission Impossible where, sweat in his eyes, the protagonist does something difficult against the clock and only just succeeds. It was like that for a WHOLE DAY.

The road was more often than not accompanied by a dirt track, providing a reasonable alternative to the road itself, which was a cross between the predictable pattern of the surface of a golf ball and a nuclear test site for toy warheads. The road was little bit like the habitat of a colony of infrastructurally ambitious, giant road-dwelling moles, or the still-life artwork of an enormous toddler who had folded and pummelled the putty surface until it resembled the wrinkled skin of fruit left in the sun (far) too long. Locals in ordinary sedan cars breezed past as though they had suspension built into their very bodies, like the bobble head dogs you could sometimes see manically agreeing on their rear sills.

Basil the Basil plant lay knocked unconscious in the footwell, whilst Terry the bonsai had leapt from his pot (most likely attempting to find solid ground) and rolled back and forth, roots akimbo, in the awkward vicinity of the gear stick and the handbrake. The glove compartment was shaken loose and hung like a dislocated jaw, as if in awe of the situation. The jarring vibrations was so severe that panels popped off of the middle doors and dashboard, the radio dislodged itself and slid in a wash of detritus that had gathered around Jack’s feet. Everything was coming unstuck; we were to see that day exactly what the Rover was made of (in most cases, it appeared to be a fake mahogany veneer glued directly onto the metal frame of the car with a greenish gunk). After a few hours, a loud rubbing noise started up under the driver’s side. With a cheer, the passengers celebrated the departure of the entire plastic wheel arch, which rolled out from under them and was left tumbling in our dust.

Over in the Skoda, the excitement literally knocked out Dom, who, whilst the other three were tying knots in tow lines like sailors in a squall, fell asleep for some 20 minutes.


Driving along a straight road was not the only challenge we faced that day. We also had to drive through a small village. Reaching the border town, Konye-Urgench, we found a fortified gravel citadel guarding the final stretch of road to the crossing. We arrived at Konye-Urgench, 15km from the border, at 5.30pm. That’s 30 minutes standing between success and 8 deportations, 8 parent-bankrupting fines, 8 cases of ‘ahhh crap’. The roads were obstructed by everything but Turkmenistan’s long-deceased dictator himself, risen from the dead to claw at our wheel nuts and stick rotting fingers into the exhaust. In the right lane, a conscientiously deserted fleet of heavy machinery. In the left, a steady queue of oncoming traffic approaching an open manhole that jutted inexplicably 4 feet from the ground in a cube of solid concrete. In between the two lanes, a ridge of gravel 5 feet high. And the road was gravel too.

We chose the right lane. Then we changed our minds. Dom ran ahead to try to find the owners of the poorly positioned excavation machines. When he turned around, he saw the limousine teeter like a decidedly unsafe, yet nevertheless luxurious, seesaw on the gravel dividing bank. Steve effortlessly commanded a useless swarm of local children, who unquestioningly put their feeble little hands against the limo and did almost nothing. More or less without their help, we heaved the car over the precipice to slide on its belly, with a rasping gasp, into the wrong lane. We were lucky to have an exhaust system and fuel lines to guard the underside of the car.

Meanwhile, Jack had run ahead down the left lane. He charged towards (somehow unflustered) locals, making fart noises with his mouth (means: “please reverse, our car is broken”) chopping his hands together and shouting “TURKMENISTAN VISA” (means: “if we do not get past you, our visa will run out and we will be arrested, deported and fined thousands of pounds”). The locals, bemused, gingerly backed up a few metres at a time, until Jack ran at them again. The prospect of a bright red 6ft 5 Scottish man blowing raspberries through their car windows was eventually sufficient to clear a route. After an incredibly strenuous effort, both cars successfully negotiated the manhole-come-turret and were clear of Konye-Urgench’s stony clutches with 20 minutes until the border closed.

The road was mercifully smooth to the border. With almost no time left on the clock, we approached the graceful white columns of the border. Those tall, smooth cylinders flanked the threshold of fate, the thin line between wallets ravaged and skin roughed by the cold cement of a Turkmenistani jail cell.
With 12 feet between us and those secular minarets, the final tow rope snapped. The limo rolled tentatively to a heart-rending stop.

Next time on “The LMLS; a blog”:

“They’ve got a petrol bottle’s chance in the Door to Hell of getting out alive, nevermind with an entire limo!” Will the limo escape from Turkmenistan?

“A frog on the face is worth two in the throat.” Will the face-frog return to Dom’s face?

“How are they writing this blog if they never even had a dictator-ship?” Discover the secret to the LMLS’s incredible ability to write long blog posts without *any* dictation equipment.