VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — No, Peter and Eileen Crichton were not to be mistaken for the U.S. couple making a millennial tour of five continents in a lemon yellow Mercedes-Benz “off-roadster.” Nor did they have anything to do with the two Germans who had just crossed Russia in a 1963 Citroen 2 CV.
“Oh, they’re going around the world too, are they?” Peter Crichton, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, said when he ran into a reporter at his hotel. “I saw their Citroen out in the car park.”
Actually, the Crichtons were merely a British couple who had driven from Saudi Arabia to the Sea of Japan, the first leg of a global tour in a Land Rover Discovery.
Credit the coming millennium or a metaphysical time-space convergence peculiar to this remote finger of Russia. But for whatever reason, three round-the-world trips arrived by chance late last week in one of the world’s unlikelier crossroads: A city of 650,000 better known for contract killings and political shenanigans.
It was not the first time Vladivostok had welcomed explorers on long-distance trips. Ever since the formerly closed city opened to the world in 1992, various wayfarers, oddballs and fanatics have come roaring, plodding or cycling into town. In 1997, a U.S. mercenary who had lost his legs fighting in Angola motorcycled from the English Channel to Vladivostok in winter. And 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.
But while only the bold dare navigate a Harley along ice-covered rivers in weather so cold it freezes your vodka bottle, a global voyage in a Mercedes convertible with overnight stops in luxury hotels is nothing to be sniffed at. Each of the three teams in Vladivostok are dealing with the hassles of navigating rutted roads, avoiding warring states, crossing remote borders and haggling trans-oceanic freight fares in alien lands.
Jim Rogers and Paige Parker, two New York residents are taking a two-year tour of the better part of five continents in a 177-horsepower Millennium Mercedes-Benz custom built for this trip, according to their Web site (www.jimrogers.com). The Mercedes’ chassis is extra high, the upholstery is black leather and they are towing their luggage in a sleek, matching trailer.
The two began with a jaunt around Iceland, then crossed to the British Isles and drove to Vladivostok via Central Europe, where, they write, they crossed Kosovo before NATO’s attack and 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 decamped in a four-star hotel a few blocks from the more modest accommodations where their two teams of fellow travelers had holed up. And, look: They honestly weren’t in a mood to deal with a representative of that howling horde of paparazzi that refuses to let them make Mercedes-Benz history in peace.
When a local reporter shambled into the hotel Versailles looking for an interview, Parker, a blonde hauling a gym bag filled with camera gear, snapped, “We already did the press.”
“Here, guy, you can have this,” said 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 rushed off to a picnic by a bay where the city of Vladivostok pumps out its raw sewage, and the next day their Web site was filled with photographs of people in bathing suits, with captions like, “I saw a lot of skin in Vladivostok.”
The Crichtons were on a journey of 40,000 km in their Land Rover from their starting point in Saudi Arabia, where he is an executive at Olayan Saudi Holding Company. But there is one caveat: They are making the journey in two legs. Having driven 13,000 km in 12 weeks, they plan 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 Arabian 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 and, coincidentally, 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 5,000-meter pass from Pakistan into China, following the old Silk Road. They even got a taste of a Far Eastern campout.
“Three nights ago, we were sleeping in this tent, and the noise of the insects was just tremendous,” said Peter Crichton, 50. “We looked outside through the screen, and there were these great gray clouds of mosquitoes.”
Ever since one of Magellan’s ships completed a three-year global voyage in 1522, the notion of circumnavigating the globe has had a certain romance. Jules Verne gave the journey a deadline with his novel “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Inspired by the book, two German tour guides from Bremerhaven, Manfred Mueller, 59, and Karl-Heinz Bruemmer, 60, decided to make an 80-day global tour in “Diffy,” their 36-year-old Citroen. (They have a Web site at www.roundworld.de.)
Theirs, however, is a trip with a history. From 1964-84, Mueller and another friend made a prolonged round-the-world in Diffy, eventually earning themselves a place in the Guinness Book of Records. They are musicians who supported themselves playing in clubs along the way. This year, he and Bruemmer decided to repeat the trip, leaving their families for a jaunt that will be completed Aug. 18 at a cost of 50,000 deutsche marks. (Some of the money was contributed by sponsors, and they also raised cash of their own.)
The two say their goal has been to promote friendship. There has only been one serious setback so far. In one Russian town, some luggage was stolen, including their passports, visas, car registration documents and a scrapbook containing 20 years worth of news clips from Mueller’s past trip. (He is now offering a $500 reward to anyone who returns the scrapbook.)
Whether they would get out of Russia on schedule is another question. On Monday, border guards were already delaying the exit of travelers without visas, leaving them with a nightmarish trail of paperwork to fight through.
In a country where some people’s memories over World War II are still strong, the two Germans have nevertheless been embraced by warm-hearted Russians. People have invited the travelers over for supper and insisted on buying them drinks. Wherever they park, people gather around and admire their car.
“We come into Moscow, and we have people honking their horns and waving to us,” Mueller said. “We have drivers coming close and handing us a piece of paper saying, ‘Welcome to Moscow.’ ”
While the explorers were in Vladivostok, the Germans and Britons met in their hotel, and the Americans invited the Germans to join their seaside picnic. But with thousands of kilometers through foreign lands under their belts, they never got together. Somehow, they never found each other.
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