Adventurers converge in Russia

Sun Journal

Tours: Three pairs of round-the-world travelers take different approaches to their journeys, yet find themselves in the same city.

July 22, 1999|By Russell Working | Russell Working,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- "Oh, they're going around the world, too, are they?" says Peter Crichton when he hears about the Germans. "I saw their Citroen out in the car park."

Round-the-world adventurers were practically tripping over each other the other day in this remote finger of Russia.

Peter and Eileen Crichton, a middle-aged British couple, had driven across Eurasia from Saudi Arabia in a Land Rover Discovery.

The two Germans had crossed Russia in a 1963 Citroen 2 CV, a car so ugly and undersized that it makes the old Volkswagen Bug look stylish and roomy.

And two New Yorkers are making a millennial tour of five continents in a lemon-yellow Mercedes-Benz "off-roadster."

It was not the first time Vladivostok, a Pacific port city of 650,000 better known for contract killings and political shenanigans, had welcomed explorers on long-distance trips. Ever since the city -- home to a major Soviet naval base -- opened to the world in 1992, wayfarers, oddballs and fanatics have come roaring, plodding or cycling into town.

Several years ago, locals claim, a Westerner pushing a wheelbarrow reached Khasan, a village on the nearby North Korean and Chinese borders, only to be turned back by Chinese officials. Nobody knows, it seems, where he had come from or where he went next.

In 1997, an American mercenary who had lost his legs fighting in Angola motorcycled from the English Channel to Vladivostok, using ice-covered rivers as highways in winter weather so cold it freezes vodka bottles.

Each of the three teams in Vladivostok has dealt with rutted roads, local wars, remote border crossings and haggling trans-oceanic freight fares in alien lands.

But only Jim Rogers and Paige Parker, the New Yorkers, are making overnight stops in luxury hotels on their two-year tour of five continents in a 177-horsepower Mercedes-Benz custom-built for this trip. The vehicle's chassis is extra high, the upholstery is black leather and they are towing their luggage in a sleek, matching trailer.

According to their Web site (www.jimrogers.com), the two began with a jaunt around Iceland, then crossed to the British Isles and drove through Central Europe, crossing Kosovo before NATO's attack, though they heard gunfire outside at night.

They made their way through Turkey, Central Asia and China, with side trips through Korea and Japan. They planned to double back toward Moscow and would eventually loop through Africa and North and South America.

Upon their arrival in Vladivostok, Rogers and Parker checked into a four-star hotel a few blocks from the more modest accommodations where the other teams of world travelers holed up. And they weren't in a mood to deal with media busybodies.

When a local reporter shambles into the Hotel Versailles looking for an interview, Parker, a blonde hauling a gym bag filled with camera gear, snaps, "We already did the press."

"Here, guy, you can have this," says Rogers, handing out a postcard with a picture of their yellow car on the front and a map of their journey on the back.

They rush off to picnic by a bay where the city of Vladivostok pumps out its raw sewage. The next day their Web site features photographs of people in bathing suits, with captions like, "I saw a lot of skin in Vladivostok."

The Crichtons started their journey of 25,000 miles in their Land Rover from Saudi Arabia, where he is an executive at Olayan Saudi Holding Co. They are making the journey in two legs. Having driven 8,000 miles in 12 weeks, they plan now to ship the car to Seattle and take a break until next year. Then they will resume the journey after taking the car by ferry to Alaska.

The Crichtons' vehicle is decorated with Michelin and Land Rover decals. On the spare-tire cover are the words, "Global Discovery Expedition: Al Saif Motors." It is likely that theirs is the first Saudi license plate ever to bounce along the streets of Vladivostok.

The Land Rover's roof supports a compact storage unit that folds out into a car-top tent, where they sleep. Another tent folds out of the back end to form a kitchen -- the ensemble comprising a dwelling with more floor space than some of the huts and yurts they passed en route.

After driving to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the Crichtons loaded their car on a dhow and sailed across the Persian Gulf to Karachi, Pakistan. Since then, they have survived blazing heat and snowstorms and crossed a 16,000-foot pass from Pakistan into China, following the old Silk Road. They even got a taste of a Far Eastern camp-out.

"Three nights ago, we were sleeping in this tent, and the noise of the insects was just tremendous," says Peter Crichton, 50. "We looked outside through the screen, and there were these great gray clouds of mosquitoes."

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