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The 50 Day, 8000 Mile Journey of Discovery

Written by Lee McKenzie McKinnon on . Posted in News

“Yeah, we’ve made it,” crackled a voice over the in car radios, peaking with relief after a nerve-wracking 72 hours of driving in one of the world’s most remote and rugged regions. For one of the most epic and ambitious modern-day overland journeys, this was a truly monumental moment. The high-alpine pass into China had been blocked by snow for days, impassable even to the hardiest of off-road vehicles. With no other route through, the team’s target – the bright lights of the Beijing Motor Show – was slipping, and time was ticking. It was with a justifiable cry of relief, then, that China finally rolled beneath the wheels of the four Land Rovers on the Journey of Discovery and this 13-country flash-tour through a mix of urban and off-road destinations – which demonstrated the fascinating diversity of the world we live in – was on the home straight at last. It was ironic, too, that the very thing that had been blocking the path into China had been directly related to the very first story on this ‘journey of discovery’. After rolling out of the Geneva Motor Show, the first stop was the Aosta Valley, where the team joined the experts from the Pila resort to discover the technique to protecting the slopes from avalanches. There, polar explorer Ben Saunders and cameraman Johno Verity – an avalanche survivor – watched as the kaboom of 20kg of explosives triggered a perfectly controlled avalanche, removing a threatening snow cornice before it become a danger. It was a dramatic start, and after a stint of ice driving in Austria and a tour of the cultural European cities of Milan, Saltsburg, Vienna and Budapest – travelling with a police escort through Heroes Square – it was onto even more gritty stuff, as the first week ended with a haunting trip to Chernobyl. More than 25 years since the world’s worst nuclear accident, this was the first private vehicle trip allowed into the 30km exclusion zone, and the peeling paint and sagging ceilings of buildings in the ghost town of Pripyat, once home to 50,000 young working professionals, showed a snapshot of a life destroyed. With people filtering back, there is hope that one day the town may breathe again – and that was a story repeated time and again, in different situations, all the way along this intriguing route. The Ukrainian cities of L’Viv, Kiev and Odessa were next up, passing by with visits to a Hogwarts-style pharmacy museum of potions and lotions; a micro miniatures museum with a 400-piece gold model ship smaller than a fingernail; and the Odessa Steppes, where a late decision by the crew to avoid damaging the famed walkway halted a planned descent. The wheels then rolled into a former submarine shelter, carved deep into a mountain beside the Black Sea in Balaklava. Such a crucial part of the Soviets’ Cold War armoury, the entire town was taken off the map for more than 35 years and driving through the curved tunnels, designed to deflect accidental blasts from nuclear missiles once stored inside, revealed the stories behind a secret old world, now replaced by luxury yachts in the harbour outside. En-route to Moscow, up a slithering snow-covered driveway, the enthralling Mikhail Krasinets revealed a glimpse into Soviet automotive history through his incredible 300-strong collection of cars, with the modern Discovery off-roaders driving alongside an ancient Soviet equivalent. In Moscow itself, an exclusive visit to the Kremlin was followed by a unique tour of the city’s sights with a former dancer from the Bolshoi Ballet, before the route into the awaiting ‘Stans’ was completed with a visit to the mighty statue of Mother Russia in Volgograd – soon to be the subject of a major motion picture under its former name of Stalingrad. From there on in, the Journey took a twist and went into the wild as the highways turned to potholed roads; urban streets were replaced by remote desert outposts; slick border crossings lengthened into the night; and temperatures, which had been chilled for most of the journey, plummeted to new lows. Meeting a rare mix of camels and heavy-duty lorries, the vehicles covered long distances, stopping at truck stops where the fresh fish gutted and sold out back often seemed easier to obtain than the precious fuel needed to keep the journey going. Eventually, the team made it to the Aral Sea, where long abandoned rusting boats sit on a gargantuan seabed created by the chronic over-demand on its feeder tributaries 50 years ago. Again, in a story of recovery, local inhabitants now fish a tiny re-filled lake, their catch used to re-populate another new region in an effort to re-establish the ruined eco system. In stark contrast, the cultural jewel of the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, deep in the Uzbekistan desert, offered the chance to explore a collection of over 90,000 avant-garde Soviet artworks, saved from destruction through years of hiding from the KGB. From here, Islamic architecture spread far and wide as the Silk Road and Spice Route rolled out towards China, with Bukhara ‘spice master’ Mirfayz – whose family have traded in the same town for generations – handing out health teas and Uzbekistan’s most famous pop star, ‘Karen’, providing a unique glimpse of Tashkent on the route through. As the temperature rose and the flat arid plains turned to rolling grass and snow-capped mountains, the roads became rutted and it was a challenging drive to Lake Issyk Kul, where an old Soviet Spa in Cholpon-Ata, once a closed shop but now the region’s equivalent of Ibiza, offered a clinical conditioning experience far from the typical Western health hubs. And so, heading south, after more than 6,000 miles, came the obstacle at the final border. The 3,752m Torugart Pass came so close to repeating the route-blocking issues that forced the original Land Rover overland expedition in 1956 to re-direct to Singapore that it was a welcome relief to reach Turpan, the first main stop in China, and take a tour of an ancient Chinese winery that is forging ahead in a new and increasingly eager market. But it says something about the incredible size of China – a thriving nation and a growing market for the likes of Land Rover – that almost 2,000 story-filled miles still remained. The dunes of the Taklamakan Desert presented a playground of adventure with China’s most adventurous off-road driving club before the Great Wall offered a clear path to follow all the way to Beijing, via China’s biggest sand ski resort and a bizarre raft race on vessels floated by whole sheep skins on the Yellow River. And when the wheels of the one millionth Land Rover Discovery rolled along the infamous tarmac of Tiananmen Square, it was mission complete. Without a scratch, but caked in the dirt of adventure, this one-in-a-million journey was over.  

Journey of Discovery Ends

Written by Lee McKenzie McKinnon on . Posted in News

Land Rover’s biggest modern-day overland expedition, the Journey of Discovery, has reached the finish line with the one millionth Discovery arriving in perfect time to appear at the Beijing Motor Show. The Journey, which saw four vehicles travel more than 8,000 miles from Birmingham to Beijing, aims to raise £1million (GBP) for the company’s Global Humanitarian Partner, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). It began on February 29, at the Solihull manufacturing plant where the one millionth Discovery was built, and since its ceremonial send-off at the Geneva Motor Show it has passed through 13 countries over challenging terrain ranging from snow in the Alps to sun-baked sand dunes in the Taklimakan Desert. John Edwards, Land Rover Global Brand Director said: “This has been an epic journey between two of the biggest events on the automotive calendar and, as we expected, it has demonstrated virtually every condition a Land Rover is designed to cope with. “This has been a very relevant journey for Land Rover, taking such a landmark vehicle from its birthplace to one of our fastest growing markets and showcasing it in all terrains. “We are delighted to see the Journey reach its physical target in Beijing and we are equally delighted with the response to the fundraising cause. We will be continuing the push to reach or exceed our target right up to the end of May.” The Journey of Discovery has been all about discovering the stories of people and places along its route. It joined the Aosta Valley avalanche team in Italy; visited the Chernobyl reactor and drove through a secret Soviet submarine base in the Ukraine; visited exclusive inner parts of the Kremlin, tested some classic Soviet vehicles and took a tour of Moscow with a Bolshoi ballet dancer in Russia. It went into the wild in the Kazakhstan desert; met a group of fishermen in the near-dry Aral Sea in Uzbekistan; and travelled along the spice and silk routes into China, where the final leg included sand dune driving, a visit to the Great Wall and a trip on a sheepskin raft. Appearing in Beijing in an unwashed state after a Journey that took over 50 days, the one millionth Discovery will be returning to the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust (Heritage Museum at Gaydon) following the expedition. THE JOURNEY IN NUMBERS
  • 78 cities visited
  • Total people participated on event: 112 including crew and media
  • 50 days
  • 10,000 miles
  • 2,920 miles driven in China alone
  • Highest point: 3,700m Torugart pass, Kyrgyzstan & China
  • Lowest point: 10m below sea level, Turfan, China

Journey of Discovery Kazakhstan to China

Written by Lee McKenzie McKinnon on . Posted in News

The epic Land Rover Journey of Discovery is now just a few thousand miles from the bright lights of Beijing – but it had to overcome a minefield of obstacles to finally reach the border into China, its final country on the 8,000-mile fundraising trip. Leaving the urban jungle of Tashkent behind, the team took on a challenging route through three different countries, via the remote lake of Issyk-Kul, and as communications faltered and roads worsened, the journey became an adventure once again. After five hours of checks across the Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan border, the relentless potholes on the Kazakh roads forced traffic to zigzag haphazardly in avoidance. Punctures were inevitable, but the team coped admirably as they pressed on into Kyrgyzstan. Markedly improved roads made driving as comfortable as it was spectacular, with pancake-flat fields on one side of the road and the snow-covered North Tien-Shan Mountains rising 4,855m on the other – but those mountains had to be crossed at some point. When that point came, the Land Rover Discoverys’ breadth of capability was the perfect match, with everything from Terrain Response to lower range gears needed to make it through the dramatic Ala-Archa National Park, a steep-sided snow-filled gorge that just 23 years ago was off limits to all but the soviet elite. Through Bishkek, the road continued to the Lake Issyk Kul Biosphere Reserve, where the vast Aurora sanatorium, which once hosted Moscow elite including Presidents Brezhnev, Gorbachov and Yeltsin, now takes pride of place in a new economy serving Chinese tourists and wealthy Kazaks. Lining the road around this unique and luxurious spa are the more traditional yurt tents, home to some 20 percent of the 5 million Kazak population. Now a more common form of cool camping holidays and festivals in the West, the circular felt super-tents play a more essential role in Kyrgyzstan life. This nomadic ‘grand design’ can be carried in one small trailer and is knocked up in less than two hours. Bizarrely the front door goes up first, the anchor for stretches of collapsible willow trellising that expands into ‘walls’ of the basic circular frame, with the roof’s round wood wheel centre held aloft on a wooden pole with strips of willow bent at an angle over hot steam connecting it all up. Inside, it’s a full-on psychedelic assault on the senses, with multi-coloured rugs, quilts and hangings. At one hour and forty-five minutes, with the final felt slipped over the central roof hole, the yurt was complete and the team was able to experience the true hospitality of the people of the region. In nearby Kochkor, the Kochkor-Kutu Co-operative employs 60 staff from the villages to produce up to 100 gorgeously patterned rugs each year. Thirty-one year old Fatima is her family’s fourth generation in the thousand-year-old industry. She explained how the sheep’s’ wool is beaten with sticks, soaked in water, rolled into handmade bulrush mats and flattened by foot. “We dance on it with our feet,” she said. “And finish it with our hands.” Back on the road, the most spectacular scenery was yet to come as the team closed in on the Chinese border, with an undulating lunar landscape, lapped by turquoise waters of tropical intensity beside multi-coloured mountains split by ravines and populated solely by a herd of camels. But with the 3,752m Torugart Pass in its sights, news came of a potential disaster. The Journey of Discovery had been in Moscow when it learned the route through the Tian Shan mountains, a challenging pass some 2.5 miles above sea level, was closed by a massive avalanche. That lasted for a week, but by the time the Journey reached Kazakhstan it had been cleared and the problems appeared to have been averted. That was until 72 hours before the scheduled crossing, when another avalanche blocked its path. It flashed back to memories of the first overland expedition in 1955, which followed a similar route but had to change destination at the last minute. But this time the route was cleared quickly and, on rough and rutted roads flushed with snowmelt and rubble, the Discoverys got their chance to head to the border. Fuelled up from Kyrgyzstan with enough reserves for the drive to the border and back if required, the team carried two days of food and water and took satellite phones for security.  So thick was the dust that each car drove over a mile apart. As lesser vehicles lay in pieces by the roadside, the technological advancements of the Land Rover Discoverys came into their own and, finally, 13 countries since Birmingham, the last crossing was complete. Now, there is just the challenge of crossing the entire length of China in time for Beijing…  

Rebuilding the Aral Sea Fishing Fleet

Written by Lee McKenzie McKinnon on . Posted in News

Land Rover’s Journey Of Discovery took the team to Muynak in Uzbekistan which was once a prosperous port city on the abundant Aral Sea that spread across 68,000 square kilometres between here and neighbouring Kazakhstan, but today it lies ragged and threadbare. Muynak’s fortune was made on the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest inland body of water, but now that sea is all but gone. Under Soviet rule in the 1960s, rivers running to the sea were diverted to irrigate the surrounding cotton fields. This was a mismanaged project which slowly but surely saw the tide recede. Unlike any other tides however this one wasn’t coming back. Inevitably, the water withdrew and today this once grand sea, estimated to be over five million years old, is barely ten percent of its original size. While much talk exists of plans to regenerate it, there seems not the will, the power, nor the economic ability on the part of the Uzbek or international community to do anything about it. The plains surrounding the sea were also heavily sprayed with harsh pesticides, while an island once isolated by the sea but now a part of the mainland since the tide has fallen was used for biological weapons testing by the Soviets. The result is desertification on an almost unimaginable scale, yet one group of locals are determined to turn things around. For the few remaining fishermen of Muynak, the conditions are harsh in the extreme. In the early days as the tide ran out, attempts were made to shore the industry up, even going to such lengths as importing fish from other regions to keep the local cannery businesses running as thoughts then turned to using metal from ships beached by the falling waters for the cans themselves. Now even that is gone, and driving slowly across what was once a seabed under thirty metres of water is an eerie experience, made all the more so by the empty, rusted hulks of the ships stranded here forever by the vanishing tide. Yet further across this formerly fertile seabed is a small lake where these few hardy fishermen and a solitary donkey haul nets in the freezing winter wind with the bare minimum of equipment. For every hour of backbreaking graft they catch a couple of buckets of fish, but surprisingly these aren’t for the table. “We take these fish to another region to try and repopulate the waters there which are a little better than these,” said Dilshot Usupov. He then clambers atop an old tanker lorry parked at the water’s edge, lifts the lid and gestures for to look inside. Peering over the top to see murky water filled almost to the top and swarming with fish. It’s a startling display of simple action, born out of a simple desire to repair the damaged environment and economy here. “When the sea was here this place was a big port with a lot of business,” Usupov says ruefully. “Now the water is about 30 kilometres from here and since it disappeared, so has the life here.” But it is his final fatalistic comments when asked about the future for the Aral Sea that are the strangest, made all the more strange by the fact it had been said from other locals along the way. “This sea was made millions of years ago by nature, and now only nature can return it.” It seems impossible to believe these people aren’t aware of the irrigation projects that have dried up their livelihood, but then this is an incredibly remote corner of the globe where communications with the outside world are limited in the extreme. Either way, as Usupov trudged back to the meagre lake behind him for another round of rough toil for scant reward, I hadn’t the heart to tell him nature was neither the cause of his problems, even if there is a slim chance it could slowly prove to be a solution. . Related Articles Journey of Discovery into Ukraine Journey of Discovery Leaving Ukraine Journey of Discover – Moscow to Uzbekistan  

Journey of Discovery Leaving Ukraine

Written by Lee McKenzie McKinnon on . Posted in News

The Journey of Discovery quite literally changes scale this week as it goes from the miniature to the massive. The intricate micro art three-and-a-half millimetre model boat visited last week would be absolutely lost in the gargantuan submarine holding pens that would be one of the next stops on the Journey of Discovery. Situated at the port town of Balaklava, Ukraine, the once top secret submarine base for the Soviet’s Black Sea Fleet offers an incredible, and sizeable reminder of the Cold War. With its ability to survive a direct nuclear hit and home and sustain 3,000 people for over a month, the Crimean coast submarine shelter is now preserved as a museum. Special permission allowed the Journey of Discovery Land Rovers to drive into the base itself. Illuminating the dark, cavernous tunnels with powerful headlamps the Land Rovers travelled into areas that once housed submarines as vast as 300 ft in length and packing some terrifying, and world-changing, firepower. Off the map since 1957, the town was re-introduced to the world in 1992. It is almost inconceivable that in living memory such a secret place existed. That the Journey of Discovery had such unfettered access to this incredible and once highly secretive Cold War relic is a remarkable indicator of the changes the world has witnessed. That is obvious too in Balaklava’s bay, now filled by a glittering array of expensive yachts from around the world rather than a sinister submarine fleet. Leaving subterranean submarine bases behind the Journey of Discovery set off en-route to Tula. A brief diversion allowed everyone to encounter a little bit more Russian history – automotive this time. This glimpse into Russian automotive history was found at the end of a long, deeply rutted driveway covered with deep snow. Easy enough for the Discoverys. At the driveway’s end resides a unique collection of cars owned by Mikhail Krasinets. Two fields full of around 300 examples of Soviet vehicles, everything from the everyday Moskvich 1500 that was the preserve of the few lucky enough to afford private transport, to the 1961 Gaz Chaika which would have been reserved for the very highest Communist Party officials. A former Russian factory rally driver and Moskvich test driver, Krasinets’ collection might not be museum quality but it’s an intriguing insight into Soviet motoring, the comfort, refinement and capability of the Discoverys a world away from these simple, austere machines. That comfort and capability is greatly appreciated as the team negotiates the rough track back to tarmac. Leaving Tula – a town famous for being the birthplace of ‘War and Peace’ novelist Leo Tolstoy – the Journey of Discovery makes a pit-stop at Tula’s finest gingerbread bakery. The recipe for the heavy, sweet and tasty gingerbread is as closely guarded a secret as the Balaklava submarine base used to be, though it’ll be welcome sustenance as the Journey continues to travel East on its 8,000 mile trip to Beijing. Before it gets there, the journey will visit Moscow, where the team will be enjoying the sights of the capital city, mixing with local artists and even having a sauna. A mobile sauna, of course. As the wheels keep turning on the Journey of Discovery one thing is for certain, with boots brimming with gingerbread nobody will be going hungry for a while

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