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backcountry

Checkpoint

22 weeks in a Helmand Checkpoint.

One year ago this week I was lying face down in a ploughed field with 7 others while a Taliban ambush opened up on us from about 150m away. This time the rounds were falling a bit closer than usual. Both lads in front of me had near misses – the first one had a round graze the inside of his forearm while the guy immediately in front of me managed to stop one with his helmet, the round ricocheting harmlessly into the ground in front of him. Afterwards he said it was like getting hit with a sledgehammer.

“Paddy, Paddy, I think I’ve been shot in the head!” Was the memorable line as we hugged the dirt. I crawled towards him, trying to remember how exactly you were meant to treat bullet wounds to the brain. Feeling around his headgear for, well, cracks & blood but relievedly found nothing I told him to stop being a fanny and we took it in turns to get into hard cover. The Taliban’s fire had died off and we soaked in, but the feeling was one of resignation – another fleeting unseen enemy attack with no desire to take us head on in a firefight. Or so we thought.

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Skopje train station

In the days before the web backpacking was a step into the unknown.

Now it’s largely a step onto Google.

In order to recreate that sense of adventure we are forced to either go to new extremes or remix the old ways of overland travel with our new found ubiquity. This is an account of a two week excursion into South East Europe via the cheap ‘n easy Ryanair into Zadar, Croatia and following on with sleeping rough through several of the Former Yugoslav states, taking in the obligatory Norn Iron international in Montenegro before crashing out on a beach in Greece by way of Mytikas.

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Picture the scene: An assortment of 15 or so overloaded hair dresser hatchbacks making their way through the backroads of Goodwood stop and get out for a confab in the middle of a country lane.

In an area of about 2 square miles, we had managed to lose a field. And fields aren’t really known for their darting about. You may be a little surprised to learn then that every team here would start out on a journey to Mongolia the next day. The fact that some would eventually make it through desert, mountains, rain and snow is nothing short of a miracle for the unprepared & unconcerned traveller. Here is the story of LRDG’s 2009 Mongol Rally.

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Now that we’ve arrived in UB and had the closing party here’s a few things

  • Globalisation has made things less hassle but also less interesting.
  • Lowest price hotel – $4 in Tajik Pamirs
  • I have to learn to swim better but river swimming is cool
  • Soviet style border bureaucacy is worse in the ‘new’ Republics than Russia itself
  • If someone utters ‘foot deep potholes’ don’t listen to their views on road quality – they’ve never been off the motorway
  • Things I missed out on:  Bukhara market Uzbekistan, Gates of Hell Turkmenistan, Iran
  • Number of weddings attended: 1
  • Best city – tie between Ashgabat & Istanbul but the phrase ‘great for a weekend’ still applies
  • Suzukis give most ‘never say die’ per pound sterling
  • Cost of Trans Siberian from UB to Moscow is ~120 quid.  It took far too long to find out this basic info on the internets.  Too much expensive ‘travel guide’ crap getting in the way
  • I was previously unaware how Asian Central Asians looked.  Imagined Persian-speaking Tajiks to be predominantly similar to Afghans.  Not the case
  • ‘We are Turks’ – Kazakh educated man in Olgii, Western Mongolia.  Also share their religion
  • All the horror stories you’ve heard about those boats crossing the Caspian are true
  • Bulgarian traffic policing is a complete joke.  Some states are going to need lessons in how to be good Europeans.  And yes I realise how ironic that statement is coming from me
  • 3 man water balloon launchers have a range of over 100 metres in dead wind
  • Gap in the market for British style kebabs from Turkey onwards
  • Best pizza/worst pizza – Holiday Inn, Sarajevo/finish line cafe UB
  • Best fast food – Either egg burger in Big Burger UB or kebabi bap in Osh, Kyrgyzstan
  • I haven’t had breakfast yet…

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Since ahem, launch, I haven’t really given much of an update on our rally progress as yet. There’s been a good reason for that though – we haven’t made any. Until yesterday, when we paid for 6 of our 9 visas. If progress is measured by how quickly a bank account can tend towards zero, well then we made a shitload of progress last night. But any sense of satisfaction at having ‘done’ something has been quickly lost in the ream of paperwork now due to various embassy offices ASAP. My fellow LRDGers and I are now auditing our initial ‘comprehensive’ travel plan submission made late Monday to Adventurists HQ.

And to be frank, it’s total shite.

Dart board dates, non-existant routes & towns that are in a different country are all heavily featured. I should point out that when we originally planned this out there was no planning, nor was the future need for it planned either. This seems to us contrary to the ethics of the Mongol Rally and so having to actually think through such concepts as ‘routes’ beyond anything more detailed than country level just seems like rallying heresy.

So we haven’t really done it.

But whatever, we’re almost done writing words in boxes and inserting random numbers in correctly formatted date spaces. We’ll be sending them all off sometime this week and then biting our nails and ringing up the Adventurists every so often for progress reports I’m sure. Mostly though we’re just going to sit back and with the help of a few cold beers reminisce about all the old adventures we’ve had and discuss all the new ones we’re going to have.

To get me in the mood I’m going to repost something that showed up on the Rally forums tonight, from the 2nd year of the Rally back in 2005:

These interesting tidbits are from the first (proper) year of the Mongol Rally, 2005. Yes, they are all true.

43 cars left London.
27 cars reached Mongolia.
14 cars reached the finish in Ulan Bator.
2 teams were robbed at knife point.
1 car snapped in half.
3 engines fell completely out of the cars.
1 team was held for five days in no-mans land.
1 team cycled almost 100 miles to get to the finish when their car gave in.
100’s of tires were blown.
1 team got engaged.
3 teams attended weddings.
1 team found a 10 foot deep pot hole.
1 team found a 25 ton crane rolled by a pot hole.
1 team had to reverse up a mountain after losing all but one forward gear.
1 person spent 24 hours in a Kazakh jail charged with five crimes against the state.
1 person was stoned by a Mongolian nomad, who then shot at him with a gun (and missed).
1 team was rammed off the road after an argument over water melons.
1 person spent a day in a Turkish hospital.
3 people were banned from Turkmenistan for a year.
As a result of an incident with a cow, one person was detained by police in Azerbaijan and threatened with a beating from a dwarf.
2 cars flipped over in Mongolia.
3 teams were chased by armed bandits.
0 team members died.

We’ll be visiting at least one active warzone while we’re away so kind of hoping the last statistic isn’t bettered…

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Fresh, er three years, back from the wastelands of the Western Sahara, we’re back.  And this time it’s destination Ulaanbaatar. 

Team site can be found here.

Doing it with the “it’s for charity” cover story this time.  Namely Christina Noble Children’s Foundation and Mercy Corps, both active in Mongolia in some form or other.  Btw I was going to setup a JustGiving account so people could donate online, but did you know they take a 5% cut from all donations!?  No thanks, if anyone wants to kindly donate any funds please just get in touch with me and we’ll work something better out…

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Sometimes a breath of fresh air comes from a source so unexpected it really does astound.  Yet it is a depressing wonder why something so simple and honest cannot emanate from the West?

 But there it is.  An Afghan blog (sadly not updated since ’07) concentrating on issues of Herat and it’s hinterland – publishes reports submitted from various news agencies around the country.  What I am so impressed by is the simple addition of a ‘description of source’ footnote to the bottom of any external piece.  Contrast that with Western media treatment of current hot potato the Gaza Strip, where any random eye-witness appears to be taken at face value and any opinion an authoritive one.

[Description of Source: Peshawar Afghan Islamic Press in Pashto — Peshawar-based agency, staffed by Afghans. The agency used to have good contacts with Taliban leadership; however, since the fall of the Taliban regime, it now describes itself as independent and self-financing. OSC IAP20071006950019 Peshawar Afghan Islamic Press in Pashto 1916 GMT 06 Oct 07]

By my reckoning the BBC would do well to provide such explanatory warning notes with a good proportion of it’s foreign correspondents!  Tribal Afghanistan is a complex society whose divisions at first seem obvious but as more is learned what was black & white becomes ever greyer, something we have a taste for in NI too.  At least some of their press seem to know how to see the wood from the trees.

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