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Five men, one car and a 16,000km mad road trip

Travel

Driving 16,000 kilometres through 19 countries in Europe and Central Asia with four mates in a car they picked up on eBay for under $1700 was exhausting, says Adelaide photographer Ashton Papazahariakis – but it left him with a portfolio of striking travel images.

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Papazahariakis’s journey began with a phone call one Sunday from four friends ­– Harry Hoskins, Marcus Ho, Will Ranken and Will Sayer – who asked him if he wanted to join them on a charity rally driving from the United Kingdom to Mongolia.

The 24-year-old agreed on a whim.

“It wasn’t a holiday,” he says of the trip.

“It was exhausting.”

The event they joined is the annual Mongol Rally, which begins anywhere in the UK and originally ended in Mongolia but now finishes in the Russian town of Ulan-Ude. The rules are simple: “You can only take a farcically small car. You’re completely on your own. You’ve got to raise 1000 pounds for charity.”

The rally offers participants no set route or support, with its website warning that getting lost, using your wits and hammering the car is what it’s all about.

Undeterred, Papazahariakis and his friends bought a small Fiat Panda for 1000 pounds (about $A1675) from a private seller in London and joined the odyssey.

“The whole experience was profound,” he says.

“It was the intensity of travelling so far and being around the same people for so long.

“People ask, ‘How was your holiday?’ There was no holiday. A lot of the time it was shit. The car would break down again and again.

“It was hard and exhausting and heartbreaking.

“Was this all worth it? Here am, back in Adelaide, and of course it was – I keep asking when the next one is!”

A playground next to the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan. Photo: Ashton Papazahariakis

A playground next to the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan. Photo: Ashton Papazahariakis

For Papazahariakis – who has a keen interest in off-the-beaten-track travel photography – the rally offered a chance to document myriad different people, cultures and places.

He hopes to release a book of the images he captured, which range from alien-looking landscapes in Turkmenistan to ultra-modern metropolises in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The team travelled through mountain passes across Iran and Afghanistan,  across Siberian wasteland and through the central Asian Steppe.

They found companions to join them on the way.

“We saw these two puppies running along a highway in Kyrgyzstan, so we picked them up and they were pretty ratty,” Papazahariakis says.

“We took them to a local service station, washed them and removed fleas with tweezers. They started being our mates and travelled with us for two-and-a-half weeks.”

A train crosses the desolate landscape of Turkmenistan, a country insulated from the world under three decades of oppressive rule. Photo: Ashton Papazahariakis

A train crosses the desolate landscape of Turkmenistan, a country isolated by three decades of oppressive rule. Photo: Ashton Papazahariakis

After deciding they couldn’t take the dogs any further, the team reluctantly found a family who would take them.

“Those dogs are living happily on a farm in Kazakhstan.”

Papazahariakis says it is difficult to distil the most profound moment from the trip, although one experience stands out.

“We were travelling a mountain pass in Tajikistan. It was getting dark and there wasn’t much oxygen, so we didn’t continue.

“We found this family whose house was built on the mountain pass. We asked if we could stay and they agreed. So we all slept in the same room: the father, the mother, the children, their dogs and our dogs.

“And we all slept on the floor.”

A Stack of rugs at Buchara, Uzbekistan. Photo: Ashton Papazahariakis

A stack of rugs at Buchara, Uzbekistan. Photo: Ashton Papazahariakis

Through their adventure, the five friends raised $10,323 for Mission Australia, an organisation which provides support for at-risk communities in Australia and aims to reduce homelessness.

As for the car, it survived the rally but was eventually abandoned, broken down, in a Swiss mechanics’ garage.

“Because we’re crazy bastards, we drove the car back through Russia.”

Papazahariakis is now considering doing a “Cape to Cape” trip from the top of Norway to Cape Town in South Africa with a Norwegian television crew in 2017. More of his photography can be seen on Instagram or his website.

A little boy living on the Russia/Mongolia border. Photo: Ashton Papazahariakis

A little boy living on the Russia/Mongolia border. Photo: Ashton Papazahariakis

Children at Wakhan Corridor, Tajikistan. Photo: Ashton Papazahariakis

Children at Wakhan Corridor, Tajikistan. Photo: Ashton Papazahariakis

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