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Vladivostok

 

Over the years, I have traveled often and far. Not much out of my own free will, but mainly because I was told to do so. Some of it involved Land-Rovers and most of them were tatty old contraptions, to be driven on most unpleasant, unsealed roads, in scorching heat, antediluvian rains or in freezing cold mountains but if that is part of the job, I'll just do it. However, I can be blamed for some of my travel because I chose for it and for all the wrong reasons. Like, for instance, a bet to take my truck just to go have a drink in Japan. That was not a good bet and a very costly one too. I had sortof decided to keep that sorry story to myself and possibly forget all about it, but since I am living in France now, a mere 100 km south of Paris and that the damn bet was taken in Paris, I think that I could as well try to write down what I remember of it.

I do not remember the date, but I do remember that some friends and I were half way through our second bottle of after-dinner cognac in a rather nice parisian eating place. I think that it was Eric who said that he could be well capable of taking his Series II and drive it all the way to Moscow just to have a swig of the local rotgut they call vodka. To which I, equally drunk out of my brains, answered that I could well take my Stage One to Japan for a shot of sake. Then the bastard dared me. And I agreed.

So three or so months later, I could take four months off from work and took my Landy to a friend's garage for preparations. When he heard what I was up to, he declared me stark raving mad and I think he was right. The "preparations" did not involve a lot, really. Set of new tires, three spare wheels, five new jerrycans, a set of snowchains, a gyrocompass of WWII aircraft vintage adapted to 12 volts and last but not least, a very compact but also extremely heavy (400 kg), ex US Army generator/compressor/arc welder set. Above that I carried my usual toolbox and some miscellaneous spares. I also had a tent and some other camping gear. The year before I had renewed my all-USSR visum for other purposes but the how and why and ect. of that is not to be dicussed here. At that moment, it looked as I would win my bet. So I topped up the oil, checked my fuel and wallet levels, closed the door of my house, left the key under the doormat and drove off.

Three days later (I do not believe in driving fast), I went throught the usual hassle at the polish border where I had to bribe my way through and endured the same crap when leaving Poland before entering Byelarus, but after that I felt quite comfortable and reassured. Minsk was quite cold in May and there was still some snow left here and there but where the streets were clear, work brigades of women, armed with brooms and shovels, were cleaning up the grit that had been strewn over the iced roads, since it gets way too cold there to use salt. I stayed for a day to say hello to some friends and to retard the ignition advance of my truck to TDC instead of its usual 6 degrees so that it would get used to the low-octane fuel that it was going to run on from now on. The next day, I left Minsk and it took me two more days to get by Moskva (where I picked up a special "Laissez-Passer" from a ministry department that I do not want to mention) and to arrive near Gorkiy, from where I drove to Kazan, in the east of Bashkiriya. I found a relatively decent hotel in Kazan, one that would be normally reserved for use by the "apparatchiks" or other governmental good-for-nothings but where my identification was readily accepted after a phone call or two to Moskva and where I paid the "normal" i.e. dead cheap price. I took my first shower in four days (warm!) and went for an "apéritif" at the hotel bar where I shared the company of half a dozen middle-aged fat men, dressed in grey suits and who were drinking without saying very much. One of them addressed me, but stopped mid-sentence after noticing the very small button I wore on the lapel of my jacket. (I do not want to discuss this either). He apologized very politely for bothering me and I bought him a drink, which he accepted politely but said nothing else. Hmm... I wondered what kind of trouble he had gotten into, in the past.

One dollar only bought me a bottle of "Red Cock", a cheap Slovak imitation of bad scotch whisky for myself but it is 90 proof and it mixes real well with Coca-Cola®. I strolled over to a table in the restaurant section of the bar and called a waiter. Two servings of solyanka (soup) and several helpings of pelmeni (compares to ravioli but filled with coarsely ground meat) later I burped very loudly to express my satisfaction (even in Russia, this is considered very rude but I could not care less) and finished my bottle of bad whisky. I slept very well that night.

The next morning was cold and wet and the local filling stations had run out of everything. So I got to the nearest army depot where it took me about three hours to get to talk to someone who was useful and to have him make the necessary phone calls to a ministry in Moskva before I could bribe him into having my 5 jerrycans filled and to sell me 10 more (also full). It took some major loadbed rearrangement to get the 10 extra cans in but I left the place with a full (68 l) tank + 15 x 20 l of yuck quality engine drink. 368 litres of the stuff ought to get me somewhere at a rate of some 20 litres per 100 km, I was counting on some 1500 km without having to re-fuel. It actually got me to Omsk in three days, some 600 km short of Novosibirsk where I was to make a major mistake two days later.

I found plenty of fuel in Omsk, took a 1 day rest and got very seriously plastered at the bar of the local Inturist hotel, for as much as that could be called a hotel. I think that the place was cockroach-free only because cockroaches are used to better lodgings than that. Anyhow, the solyanka was ok. At the hotel bar, later in the evening I met Kommandir Korenko, an Ukrainian officer who was stationed there and who told me that he had driven a GAZ jeep from there to Vladivostok the year before and who recommended me to take very much the same route as he had done then, for he considered it very safe and almost traffic free. It would take me to Vladivostok by a route vaguely parallel to the north mongolian border. He agreed to meet the next day and he would give me the maps he had used himself, for which I thanked him very much.

Korenko kept his word and the next day, in the late afternoon, we had gone through all the maps and I had filled several sheets with notes about the roads in the hills and lowlands, what to avoid and so on. Korenko also gave me the address of some friends of his in Novosibirsk.

The drive from Omsk to Novosibirsk was the same, rather boring kind of road as what I had driven up to now but I was glad that I could stay north and clear of the Altai mountains and its crappy roads and the idiotic militzia in that whole area at the time. The Altai are great for those who like watching bare rocks and freezing their asses off. I am interested in neither.

Korenko's friends in Novosibirsk seemed genuine enough, though, which I found out at a road block not far from the city and was made to pull over and park by the road. They did not ask for any papers and did not want to check anything, but I was rather politely asked to say something in "Belgian" and then told to wait for a few minutes, after I had told him to kiss my ass in Flemish. I wondered what the guy had been drinking, but I was immediately convinced that it had been real good stuff and a lot of it. What had happened is that Korenko had called one of his friends in the Novosibirsk garrison to ask his men to be on the lookout for a red ragtop Series III with belgian licence plates, to pull it over when found and then to escort it to the Novosibirskaya Avtobasa and then to take me to the barracks where I was to be given quarters. I did not know this. Yevgeniy, Korenko's friend, held the rank of Colonel in the Spetznaz and was a very capable man but he had not the foggiest about what an S III might look like and even less what Belgian license plates were (similar to the Byelorussian), so he had asked his friend, also a colonel but in the military police, to set up a roadblock on the main road and everything that looked somewhat unfamiliar was stopped and the drivers were asked to say something in "Belgian". And since I seem to have been the only one who had said something totally incomprehensible to them, I had been told to wait. Simple, but effective. So I waited. I shut down my engine, got out of my truck and lit a cigarette. The young "militzionyer" who was standing by me looked at my pack of "Belga" smokes with eyes, the size of dinner plates. It did not take a lot of convincing to have him accept the 3/4 full pack and that must have earned me the eternal gratitude of the boy who immediately lent me a hand to top up my fuel tank while I was standing there.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, a Dnyepr motorcycle (sidehack with driven wheel) pulled up and I was asked to follow them, which I did. I was still not sure about what was going on but I thought it wiser not to argue and just do as asked. And since they did not show any animosity, I already suspected something from the side of Korenko.

50 km to the barracks later, I was welcomed by Korenko's friend, my truck was driven to the motorpool garage by an NCO and I was ushered into the officer's mess.

"Na Vashye zdorovye" "To your health" were the first words spoken after the usual introductions and explanations and etc. Most of them had never met a foreigner before, let alone one who was fluent in Russian and no-one had ever seen a Land-Rover before, except from some pictures, let alone a genuine Stage One. Questions all over me, more than I could answer and some that I did not want to answer, but they understood that. Times were bad then, for the Russian military, but they had organized some welcoming meal for me and I was all too glad to oblige. And of course, the evening sortof ended singing without omitting the compulsory "V lesu prifrontovom" (in the woods near the front) of which the words "starinniy vals, Osyenniy Son, igraet garmonist" (the accordion player plays the old walz An Autumn Dream) still sortof kinda stirred something inside me. And they had a genuine accordion player with that. Oh well, so much for the old days and so much for nostalgia. But these were the new days, the days of Gorbashshov and Yeltsin and I still had a bet running.

Dont ask me how I eventually made it to my bed but I woke up in it with a very, very sore head. Volga basin vodka and georgian sweet wine just do not mix well. But the solyanka was good. (one may notice that I am rather fond of solyanka). The next day saw the Stage One emptied of its load by some poor coolie conscripts and "test" driven around the base by most of the officers, who just loved the old truck. Fuel was not a problem and by the end of the day, she was fueled up again with her full complement of 368 litres of 60something octane. And my WWII vintage aircraft gyrocompass had been traded for 10 large cartons of contraband egyptian cigarettes and a brand new Makarov 9mm pistol with 400 rounds of ammunition, courtesy of the base commander. The next day, after a 6-egg and bread breakfast, they let me go and made me promise to write. I took the road to Krasnoyarsk and past Tomsk, I headed northeast to Yanisevsk. And there, I got up the well-know creek, with no paddles.

Although south Siberia is not as flat as one would imagine, it is as swampy. This means: stay out of it during spring/summer, as it turns itself int one gigantic quagmire, almost the size of Europe. Main roads are few and far in beween and very damaged by trucks that ignore the thaw barriers. So one may be compelled to take the smaller, unsealed roads, which is a major mistake. I made just that mistake. Once off the broken-up tarmac, I got into the slush. And I mean slush like as in slush by Slush Inc. itself. The genuine article. The Yuckiest Goo Known To Man. Hell cannot be THAT bad. Mind you, it sorta kinda went well for the first 200 km which I covered in three days. But after that it felt like there was no gravity anymore but that earth really sucked. Up to the door handles in it and towed out by archaic tracked agricultural tractors and there seemed no end to it. 3000 (three thousand) km to go to Khabarovsk, by the north route over Lake Baikal. And here is where the railroads came to the rescue.

Sick of getting bogged every mile or so, I made it to a railway station in a remote little village and asked if the tracks went east. Yes, they went east, and there were trains on them, sometimes even. Not the real transsiberian express, of course, but trains, just trains. I could not care less what trains, as long ans the tracks ran east. So when was the next train due? In 4 days. Good, I will wait. The station chief told me that they would not take the Stage One on board and I answered that that was not the question. I also had 4 days now to explain my "plan". 2 days and a LOT of vodka and some packs of cigarettes later, my plan was understood.

The weather was good and dry, so I took my time to change oil and make some minor adjustments here and there and spent the rest of the time purchasing local produce and cooking, eating and drinking in the station yard with whomever wanted to share my fare. A local and extremely good-looking 24 y o Afghanistan-war widow proposed to do my laundry for free but but I could avoid marrying her by paying her US $ 10 for the washing, which she preferred in the end. Good choice, I thought.

On the fourth day, the train arrived, as predicted, and almost on time. As soon as it left the station, I revved up the Landy and sat in its wake. On the tracks, that is. Well, not ON the tracks, but on the sleepers. Took about 15 minute or so to find the periodicity of the suspension and from then on I proceeded at about the same speed of the train which must have been some 40 kmh. This exercise did not do any good to my kidneys.

I may have said before that I utterly dislike bad roads but this beat it all. To find the periodicity of one's suspension is one thing, liking it is another. After 8 hours of it, like it or not, be as macho as you like, you're done. Period. The French did it in their Citroen Croisiere Jaune to China in the twenties and I hated it in 1990 too. But what to do when no viable other choice? Yea, I know, take the better roads, take another route. Fuel was not a real problem, found some of the same crap at most of the kolkhoz under way, against cigarette and dollar payment, even when they said there was only diesel available. But I was where I was and that was the thing to do, then. So 8 x 40 = 320 km per day, on average. 1 day of rest after one day of sleepers, then wait for the next train, and so on and so forth. Till I finally got off the tracks, some 200 km short of Khabarovsk.

Khabarovsk to Vladivostok was a one-day periple without any noteworthy events, I did not look for any trouble when arriving there, but made my way to the local garrison barracks and asked for communication with my friend Korenko. The jungle drums, however, must have been way faster than myself and my arrival seemed to have been anticipated. Quarters were provided for, truck taken into shelter and driver fed and drinked. manymany questions asked. From Belgium to Vladi in THAT? Yes. Slava Bogu. (The gods be praised). Two days of vodka and telling story. Lotsa laffs. Very drunk.

Next day, call "ferry" company: how do I get to Nihon (Japan) by sea, and at what cost? Answer: yes, you get there, it is possible, 6 week waiting list for vehicles, US $ 4,000 single trip, deck load. Thank you, I will call you back.

Motor pool garage had, in the meantime, found out that I had 9 broken spring leaves in the packs. So I called my parts supplier and he called DHL. Got 4 brand new spring packs 78 hours later and decided to go back home by the north route. Lost my bet, though.

Continue

 

The way back.

Vladivostok means: (the town of) Vladi(mir) in the East (vostok=east). I have no idea who Vladimir was and what he did in the East, but it is not exactly the town you want to be in, unless you have a damn good reason to be there. Since I did have no such reason I limited myself to have my springs packs exchanged, do an oil change, top up gearbox and axles where needed, check most mechanical parts of my truck and found no more oil leaks than usual. Drive shaft u-joints were still good so I gave them a shot of grease and that was very much it. In the evening of that same day, I had laid out whatever maps I had and some of the other officers and me greased our brains with the local rotgut to find a suitable route back to Moskva. But why not go through Kazakhstan and the Ukraine ? Good question. My answer was that. for all I knew, the roads were not the safest, then. Most of the others agreed that I should drive through Russia proper, rather than to try any uncertain adventures when one is alone and traveling with one truck only. You just never know. One can call me overcautious, but I had already had more than my share of all sorts of heroic-romantic bovine manure called "adventure" by then and I did not really want to add to it and certainly not in areas where just too may loose forefingers may be uncomfortably close to AKM triggers. I have the utmost admiration for Mikhail Kalashnikov, but many of his brainchilds just tend to end up in not the steadiest of hands. And, I had flown over Central Sibir a few times, but never really driven through it. So we all agreed that the best way to take would be the "North Route" to Moskva. This did not imply I would attempt a touristic visit to the north of Yakutia, of course. But something I felt in my elbows made me purchase a set of Red Army snow chains for the fair price of 12 packs of smokes. We "celebrated" one more dinner together, exchanged addresses and someone took a picture which he promised to send me. He never did, and since I had forgotten to take a camera and never bothered to buy one under way, I have no pictures of that trip. I have no pictures of any trip. Whatever I care to remember is solidly anchored in whatever little memories I want to keep for myself and all the rest is what I wanted to forget anyway. Sometimes, something pops up, like this, and I cannot resist the urge to "write it away from me", however badly written it may be.

Thew first 700 km to Khabarovsk were uneventful and from there I made it to Komsomolsk na Amurye (Komsomolsk-on-the-Amur), a fairly large town, where I bought as many provisions as I could carry. Just for the heck of it, I had my truck weighed at a local kolkhoz-style farm. 2800 kg (abt 4700 lbs) which I thought a bit on the heavy side. So I decided to get rid of half a ton of generator set. But no-one wanted it after deciding that it was better to have a crappy USSR-made set for which spares were plentiful, than an ex-US army set for which spares would just never be available to them. I understood their point and set off with a very heavily overladen truck and about 3 bar's worth of air pressure in my 750/16s. When I turned off the main road to go sortof west, I regretted my gyrocompass and had to do with a magnetic back-up which implied to get out of the truck each time and go some 10 metres away from it. Oh well.

There are some, mostly very poor, roads through the landscape there and they lead one from one village to another and nowhere else. There is not much to see that I cared to see and my main preoccupation was fuel since the overweight did not exacty positively affect my fuel consumption and some hilly roads were strictly 2nd gear. But dollars did wonders wherever I saw an agricultural tractor of some sort and most were on petrol anyway because of the cold winters. Some were on paraffin (kerosene), though.

Did you know that a Rover V8 will run on a petrol/paraffin mix ? Neither did I, but came a moment that I just had to try it because nothing else was available. 1/3 paraffin and 2/3 of petrol will do it, but starting has to be done (cold) by pouring some raw ether into a carb. Ignition wants a lot of retarding too. It runs, but that is all that can be said. I would not recommend it.That is how I just made it to Chumikan, way off course.

Chumikan is small and dirty and cold but I found enough petrol at a small military airbase where they seemed very interested in my generator and I was able to make a deal with them: my genset for: 368 litres of aviation petrol (120 octane) + a jerrycan holder rack on the back of my truck for 10 additional cans + another 200 litres of avgas. Deal. It took their workshop 2 days to fabricate the rack. This made my truck some 200 kgs lighter and I had now 568 litres of fuel on board which should have given me enough autonomy to get virtually anywhere. I also got a somewhat classified set of maps from them, telling me where to find practically all militariy airfields and airstrips between there and Moskva. And that proved to be a great help.

Chumikan is small and dirty and cold but I found enough petrol at a small military airbase where they seemed very interested in my generator and I was able to make a deal with them: my genset for: 368 litres of aviation petrol (120 octane) + a jerrycan holder rack on the back of my truck for 10 additional cans + another 200 litres of avgas. Deal. It took their workshop 2 days to fabricate the rack. This made my truck some 200 kgs lighter and I had now 568 litres of fuel on board which should have given me enough autonomy to get virtually anywhere. I also got a somewhat classified set of maps from them, telling me where to find practically all militariy airfields and airstrips between there and Moskva. And that proved to be a great help.

I said that I would not attempt any tourism through Yakutia, but 5 days of camping in the siberian boonies later I found myself in Yakutsk, smack dab in the middle of it, by the Lena river. I needed a cheap hotel and a hot shower and they even had some form of a laundry service there. Reindeer meat and potatoes restored most of my inner self and brought me back to my senses, in a way that I would try to keep to more conventional roads than what I had been driving on, like on that little stretch between Tommot and Ulu, where the road had been broken up and I had to make a detour through the 2 little villages east of the Amga river and got lost in the hills, on farmtracks consisting of loose rock and/or half-frozen slushy mud in which I got more than thoroughly bogged. Not up to the legendary door handles, but all of a sudden, the heavy truck just sunk in. Not in particularly deep ruts, but it just sunk into the earth. I thought that maybe my newly acquired snowchains would come in handy, but how do I put them on with all four wheels almost completely submerged in the cold goo? Winch out ? Not really, because A: nearest trees a mile away and B: my battery would not live long enough to permit any significant movement if I could not get any help from my wheels. So what to do ? Right, use yer shovel and start digging. Took me more than a day to do it and not a living being in sight. Eventually, I got all four snowchains mounted, but the truck was still laying on its chassis. Now, I would try my 5-ton Braden winch, but one little detail was still missing: what do I attach the wire rope to? Inventiveness is born out of misery, they say, so I took my axe and started walking. Walking a mile, carrying an axe is no big deal, but chopping a tree down and dragging a large part of it back the same way, IS a BIG deal, believe me. Took me 12 hours to do it. The next day, it took me another 5 hours or so to bury the damn tree trunk (no, I did NOT want to bury my spare wheel). I had laid out my 40 metres of winch rope first and then lenghtened it with my 10 metres of polyethylene 40 mm tow rope. That gave me some 45 metres to winch. Ok, here we go, then. The first layer of wire rope on the winch drum had just enough pull to get me moving, very slowly until my wheels found some grip again and I very parcimoniously used the accelerator pedal in 1st low (!) at some 2000 revs, which was also good to supply some extra juice to the battery. But when I reached my buried log, the Stage One would still not move on wheel traction alone and kept sinking in. So that was 45 metres in 2 hours, then, which included a "battery breathing/recuperating/charging session". So I laid out the ropes again, opened a can of fresh elbow grease and manned the shovel for the second time, swearing and cursing as I went. it had started raining and I got soaked to the bone. 6 or 7 or whatever hours later -I really don't care to remember- I had covered another 45 bloody metres and the gravity / slush combination was still not vanquished. I did not bother to set up my tent, let the engine run for an hour or so at a fast idle (by means of a carefully placed rock on the accelerator pedal) for the sake of my battery and for letting the Land-Rover "heater" getting the most cold out of my skeleton, dug out a change of clothes and a bottle of cheap whisky and crashed on top of my gear in the loadbed.

In the late afternoon of the next day, halfway through my fourth (4th) digging-and-winching exercise, it suddely felt as if I were getting some grip under my 750s. I dashed out, detached the wire rope from the tow rope, got back in, selected 3rd low and floored it. The truck moved again, I never minder the winch wire rope dragging under the truck, kept it in the ruts and momentum up as good as I could. I made it to where I had cut the tree and drove into the little wooded patch where I hoped that tree roots would prevent the truck from sinking in again. it worked. I sighed with relief, let the engine run, lit a cigarette and had a good stiff drink from my bottle. My back hurt like hell from the digging, my hands had more blisters than skin and I was feeling cold. The soil in the wooded patch was kinda dry and then I noticed that I was sitting on some sort of a knoll that was much dryer that the surroundings. I decided to set up "camp' first, while still in the daylight and about an hour later I had put on another change of dry clothes and had a pot of chicken broth heating on my 1960ies Coleman® gasoline stove / tent heater. later, tucked in deep into my warm sleeping bag, half drunk, I listened to the silence of the tundra. Being tired is the best sleeping pill just like hunger is the best sauce and it was noon when I woke up the next day, feeling sore all over, but well-rested. Temperature was some 5 degrees centigrade (+) and I took care of my blistered hands first by rubbing them in a couple of handfuls of moist soil and let it dry over the heater. The arsenicum content of the soil would soon harden my skin again and I knew that I had, over the years, acquired a remarkable resistance against wound infections. Next, wearing a pair of glove (I don't push my luck), I went to retrieve my tow rope, for which I had to dig out the log. I laid the log by the side of the track and atrached a note to it, written on a piece of cardboard with a waterproof felt marker: " Good used winch anchor for sale, $ 1.--" I dragged the rope back to my truck, put it back in its place, wrapped around the bumper and then proceeded to clean and roll up my winch wire rope. Around 4 in the afternoon, a little, watery sun shone on my back and the temperature read 12 degrees C (+). I decided to spend another night there. Tin camptable laid out, canvas chair, hot broth, can of caviar and onother one of pilchards, some potatoes in the ashes of a badly burning "campfire", warm clothes, silence all around. It became another night of good sleep.

I spent the next morning with a recon on foot of the track and it did not look very good, but a lot better than before and I had not much of a choice anyway. With all my gear strapped as securely as possible inside my truck, I started up the engine, let it run warm, selected 3rd low again and chose for the "momentum" approach in driving style. It paid off. After 3 or four very uncomfortable hours of bouncing and hopping and swearing I made it to a small hamlet whose name I forgot but where the mud track changed into gravel. Locals told me to just follow the track (there was no other), stay on the gravel and the main road is just 25 miles ahead. Thanks. Bye. Have a pack of smokes. Eventually, I got to Yakutsk.

So from now on I would go west, no more north. Dammit.

My plan was to sortof try to follow the Lena river upstream for as far as I could and then make it to the northwest side of lake Baikal, from where I would then drive to Krasnoyarsk. But that was easier said than done. Political changes were in the air and all was not so clear to all as it used to be. Wild speculations went round and some groups began to see "enemies" everywhere. Also, central Asia is a loooong way from Moskva.

This time, it was extremely slow heavy trucking traffic, military convoys and innumerable roadblocks that made me decide to go by the smaller roads again, although there was, more than often, no other choice than to go with the traffic. It took me almost 3 weeks to cover some 3000 km from Yakutsk to Krasnoyarsk, stopping and going and stopping and going and getting off the road for the night, where the shade and the dark made me feel a lot safer. Living on the preserves I had bought and enjoying the occasional can of ikra (caviar) and a bottle of wine. I did not have any bread, but potatoes are quick to boil and I sortof felt on my ease, in the late evenings.

In the end, I found refuge in Krasnoyarsk, where my "magical' paper from Moskva worked wonders again by getting me a full complement of avgas and all I wanted, but most of all I was glad that that ghastly "mud-and-rock desert" experience was behind me. Never again. Novosibirsk was only some 1000 km away, give or take a few miles. I called the garrison there and I was told that they would be glad to see me again.

By the time I arrived in Novosibirsk after a 1-day stop in Tomsk for another oil change, my hands had mostly healed and the weather was sortof good in these early June days. Day temperature around 22 C (+) and about 15 at night. It rained every other day but I was not cold anymore, nor too hot. Yevgeniy told me that there had been some trouble in the area and he added that it might be advisable to avoid the road to Omsk / Sverdlovsk or Chelyabinsk. Again, we laid out the maps. Yevgeniy said that he would go through Kazakhstan and keep as south as possible and that he would call military friends in Barnaul, Semipalatinsk, Karaganda and Magnitogorsk. He also asked me if I had any films to develop and that they could process them for free at the base. I answered that I did not even have a camera and they all laughed their heads off. What ? Such a heroic trip and no camera ? No. Why not ? Because A: I forgot, B: I suck at taking pictures, C: it was not heroic at all and it was sheer misery and I want to forget all about it and D: whatever images I want to remember of it, I got them in my head and there is where they are going to stay and it is no-one's business. They took that as a fair answer, which I thought was good. As said before, whatever memories I want to keep of whatever events in my life are mine, and mine alone, and it stays that way. Furthermore, I do not differ from anyone else: one hears what I say or write, but no-one hears what I think. Much like a double-edged blade and not unlike what Etsuko (my sis) used to say in Engrish: "Yes, but maybe no, perhaps". So I set my mind to driving via Barnaul.

Kazakhskaya SSR (The Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic).

Barnaul, Semipalatinsk (spent the night there), then via Karkaralinsk to Karaganda. But I stopped in Karkaralinsk where I spoke with some locals about the old caravan trail, part of one of the variants of the old silk trail from China to the west. 500 km of dry desert desolation started there towards Aktogay, which was not more than a further 500 to the Chinese border. I did not want to go to China, but taking a brief look at lake Balkhash sortof appealed to me and in my whole enterprise of wasted time and money, this short excursion would not matter anyhow. So I drove 500 km to Aktogay on a very, very desolated desert track with absolutely nothing to see that would be worth mentioning. I could easily imagine the boredom of the camel drivers, a couple of centuries ago. I did prefer the relative comfort of my 1981 Stage One, though. Lake Balkhash is a lake as any other, more than half the size of lake Baikal and it is quite remotely located and there are no tourists there. Rocks and some sand and some water. Click. Took a "mind" picture. Ok, seen it, now what is next ? Hmm. let's try to get back to Karkaralinsk by the other desert track, the one that starts in the town of Balkhash, by the lake.

Damn, no real road, no track even, from Aktogay to Balkhash. I must be out of my bloody mind. Check fuel reserve, deflate tyres, lock centre diff. 300 km of sand. Yuck. Come, on, Takeo, shut up and drive. Okok. I'm working on it. Took me 5 full days of yuck sand and rocks and wind and thirst and shoveling and more blasted sand and damn rocks to get there. Phew. Made it. Never again to that one, too.

Balkhash is not large, ugly and cheap. Fresh fish frome the lake. Yum. Crappy dwellings but hot water for shower. First night of sleep was deep and long. In the afternoon, I drove to the lake shore and stared at the water, glaring in the sunshine. Two young girls are strolling by, as pretty as asian girls come. One throws a rock at a stray cat and I reply by throwing a couple of rocks at the girls. They run away, screaming. Good. The cat sits on a rock in the sun, looks at me and blinks. I look at the cat and blink back. The cat strolls away after this eye contact. Sometimes I think I understand cats and the more I think I do, the less I think I understand humans. Cats are good.

So I decided to stay in Balkhash for a while. There was a small army post there, at the time. The commander was very drunk, a man from Leningrad, I think, who had been posted there as some sort of punishment and he hated every moment of it, which I understood. Balkhash is not the ass hole of the world, but one can clearly see it from there and even on a foggy day. But, like many, he could not resist US $$, nor some good tobacco and he arranged quarters for me at a farmhouse, owned by -another- Afghan war widow. Like the first one I had met, she was also young and very pretty. And she did not stop crying for her lost husband, a wound that I thought would take long years to heal. I stayed clear of her as much as I could except for the occasional short chat and she appreciated the $$ since the small pension she got was not really worth mentioning. Her mother would come by in the evenings and she was not very good at consoling her daughter and I saw them crying together. Only the girl's cat brought a smile to her face once in a while, the same cat I had seen by the lake because I recognized the black-and-white fur pattern on the cat's face. Like I said before, cats are good.

I stayed there for two whole weeks, lazing about. going into the hills for some pistol shooting practice, sitting by the lake with the cat, having my laundry done and drying my -still wet- gear, painting my ragtop with army tent waterproofing stuff, drinking and eating, taking a rest and generally thinking of what in hell's sake I was doing in this devil-forsaken place. I felt peaceful there, sortof, but got, all of a sudden, very nostalgic about Laos. Now don't ask why, I don't know, either. So I decided to drive on.

The other dry and desolated desert track to Karkaralinsk was as boring to drive as the first one and it made me doze away at the wheel a couple of times, but with the added delight of about five flat tyres, caused by sharp rock splinters that even cut throught the soles of my boots at times. And it was not so easy to follow, for not being more than a vague shallow. 1200 km from Karakalinsk to Magnitogorsk, between slow trucks and trying to avoid the largest potholes in the old asphalt. But by then, I was back in Bashkirya, some 4500 km from the place I called "home" at the time. Drove through the mountains to Ufa, where I attempted to visit a friend, but could not find him.

The rest was a slow drive to Byelarus, to Poland, to Germany and back to Absurdistan (Belgium) about which there is not so much to say. Got home, sorted out my heaped-up correspondence of which I threw away most without even reading, stored my truck and got on a plane to Zuerich to meet my boss.

So. I have done it. Wrote most of what I did not really wanted to write and now it is gone. At last.

Takeo.