Saturday, November 8, 2008

It's official - I'm done driving!

I'm kinda tempted to just stick to public transportation for a while when I do get back to the States... But that's off in the future somewhere, as for the present day, I've just driven the final 250km across Japan and reached the city of Nagoya on the Eastern coast of the island. East of me now is... well... Hawaii? Or maybe Alaska, to the North-East, is actually closer? Whichever it is, there aren't any more ferries to be had, so I have officially reached the East end of Asia and all that's left now is to ship the car across the Pacific to the US... so that I can probably not drive it there (re-read that 1st sentence). The tentative plan for Nagoya is to meet up with JCrew (or Jcar, or 'Smaller is Better', or whatever you want to call them really), another Mongol Rally team whom Lott and Cyrus had met along the way near Odessa. They have actually already driven their remarkably tiny vehicle all the way from London to Nagoya (with considerably less trouble than the mini). Here in Nagoya they work for a company that ships Japanese cars to the US and Canada, so if I can ever get a hold of them again, they should be able to help me get the mini shipped over to the States.

The autumn foliage colors are in full force as you cross the Japanese Alps in November

And this sign tells you exactly where you are...

The 250km drive was mercifully unremarkable as far as the car goes (yes the rear left wheel still rubs against the fender, but since when is that news?). The scenery outside was quite remarkable though once we got away from the cities on the coast, with the road snaking its ways around (and often through) the mountains, which are covered by trees bearing leaves in a variety of fall colors. Speaking of through, the Japanese sure do seem to like digging tunnels! Not that I mind given the difficulty the mini would've had climbing over the peaks, but it really was quite remarkable that over the course of the 250km trip, I must have gone through at least 30 tunnels of varying lengths. Some were merely a couple hundred meters, plenty were much longer - with the two biggest being 11 and 9 kilometers respectively. I was a little too preoccupied thinking what I would have to do if the car broke down in the middle of one of these tunnels - one lane road with a narrow shoulder - to take any pictures, so you'll have to take my word for it... Breakdowns never became an issue by the way.

As for a little bit of a background on how I got here... First, there was Vladivostok, where I had to get the car onto the ship heading for Japan. This, of course, involved dealing with the port customs. Now, normally, taking a foreign-registered car out of Russia is a trivially simple process - you hand over the temporary import document they gave you upon entry and drive off into the next country... Not so in Vladivostok, where they are accustomed to dealing with cars entering the country from Japan, so the ever so accomodating customs officers have chosen to extend all the multitudes of paperwork to the cars leaving the country as well. So, I had to go the customs office (not the one at the port, mind you, no they sent me to the one in town... but, hey, I learned about the Vladivostok bus system!), where I had to hand-write a request for taking my car out of the Russian Federation. Then list all the things that were in it (this caused some consernation since the cars arriving from Japan are obviously empty). There was no actual point to the paper - I could've written that I was taking a UFO from Russia to Pluto for all they cared - the customs people just wanted to have a piece of paper to have various officials put stamps onto. So, I spent the next few hours shuttling between a variety of officials getting my 'official' piece of paper stamped. Then we went and had the car inspected - this really just involved taking a bunch of photos of the car, no idea what for, but somebody's wasting a lot of hard drive space in Vladivostok. Then back to customs for more stamps and signatures... In spite of the fact that I was more or less conducting this entire operation, there was precious little actual involvement on my part beyond writing the application (not that I got to make it up of course - a somewhat helpful lady on the first floor told precisely what I was supposed to write... not that anyone read it afterwards) and unlocking the car for the inspector. Other than that, everybody knows which signature/stamp is needed next, so you just wonder from office to office, wasting my time, and keeping the erstwhile Russian bureaucracy humming at full speed (with an occasional break to go outside and have a cigarette, of course).

So after first showing up at customs around 9:30 in the morning, by 3 in the afternoon, I had all my papers properly signed and stamped... And to think that driving out of Russia into Kazakhstan or Mongolia took all of 10 minutes (well, the part about taking the car out did anyway). And after having to pay the port a $150(!) dock fee to have them drive the car 30 meters from the parking lot onto the ship's car deck, I was all set to see Japan. Except for that whole 40 hours in the Sea of Japan during which I did... well, not a whole lot of anything. I read a book about the history of Scotland - turns out that aside from the fun parts covered in Braveheart and Rob Roy, the country doesn't have a particularly interesting history. Just prior to departure I called Svetlana in Chernyshevsk again - she assures me that they are still working hard on trying to find my wallet and the people responsible... but, alas, no luck so far. I'm totally holding my breath!

The 'Rus' sailing along the Sea of Japan

and I'm looking for something to do

On to Japan... Temporarily brining a car into a European nation is a non-issue. Russia, Turkey, and most Central Asian countries will make you sign some papers and send you on the way. Japan? Well, here, you will need a Carnet de Passage - an official document that guarantees that the car will be taken back out of the country... Apparently a lot of countries participate in this process, we just didn't happen to visit any on the way to Mongolia (teams going through Iran had to deal with it though). So I learned about the Carnet system while in Ulaan Baatar and while moving towards Japan over the next month had CAA (that would be the Canadian Automobile Association) set one up for a low-low price of $550! By the time I got to Japan, the carnet was finally ready, all that was left was to have it sent over to Japan, so after arranging to have the customs office receive the carnet, I left the car in their custody for a week and took off for Tokyo. Feeling quite liberated to be traveling without a car for a change. Getting to Tokyo took me through the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. Tokyo is quite unlike any other city I've ever been to - what with a 20+ million worth of people (a lot of them eccentric in their various ways) living there, a public transportation system so complex that it is beyond any chance of comprehension, and more neon signs per square meter than Las Vegas! I also took the time out to hike up Mt. Fuji, getting rewarded with some spectacular views.

Dinner with friends in Tokyo... I do like Japanese food! And it's so much better when you're with friends who can read and speak Japanese!

Mt Fuji early in the morning

Ths sun coming up over the clouds

I should try and post more about both Tokyo and Fuji, for now, just some pictures: climbing Mt Fuji and Tokyo.

Well, after a week in Tokyo, I learned that the carnet had, in fact, arrived, so I had to go back across the country, pick up the carnet, play another game of 'how many signatures and stamps can we put on this document' for half a day, buy Japanese auto insurance, and finally get on my way driving in Japan! A quite surreal experience as there are absolutely no cars from outside Japan on the roads here! And much like the start of the Mongol Rally in England, they drive on the wrong side of the road again...

Now that I can't really drive any further East, Nagoya should be the final point in the Mongol Rally map, which I have been continued updating with my whereabouts beyond Mongolia. Unfortunately, there are some technical difficulties with sending SMS updates from here in Japan (read: it's not actually possible), so Nagoya will show up as soon as Lott has a chance to send the message for me.

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