What the heck is the Mongol Rally? http://mongolrally.theadventurists.com/index.php?page=overview
The Mongol Rally is a pan-continental drive across five mountain ranges, two deserts and more barren and inhospitable lands than you care to shake a gear-stick at. Starting in London, the final destination, beyond the Gobi Desert, is the great capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar. A third of the way around the earth, from Europe to Mongolia via a plethora of countries most people haven't heard of in a car that has an engine no bigger than 1 liter. Starting from England, the rally finishes in the Mongolian capital Ulaan Baatar around four-six weeks and a whole heap of adventure later. It's between 8 and 10,000 miles depending on the route . This is not a race; this is supposed to be an adventure and not a cozy guided driving tour. There are about 300 teams, and about 20 of those are American teams.
The Mongol Rally isn't just about adventure, it's also about raising huge sacks of cash for some great charities. Each team coming on the Rally raises a minimum of 1000 British Pounds for the Rally charities. In 2007 the Mongol Rally topped $400,000 and we hope to smash that in 2009. Please navigate to our Charities link to find out more about the funds we are trying to raise and use our fancy donation widget. Please help us reach our goal!
In a normal year, just over half the teams make the finish line in one piece - follow our blogs below as we attempt to be in that group.
Mongol Rally By the Numbers
Posted by Jason at 25th August 2009 at 10:59
OK This is my last Blog entry, just some statistics about our jouney:
Car Driven: 100% stock 1.3 liter Suzuki Wagon R
Distance Driven: 8,030 Miles
Days on the road: 37
Countries crossed: 15
Times pulled over by the cops: 14
Most times pulled over in 1 day: 4
Bribes paid: $14
# of members arrested by Russian police: 2
Ferries riden: 3
Longest leg of Driving without a significant stop: 30 hours
Nights spent in the car: 3
Nights spent at borders: 2
Total time spent waiting at borders: 59 hours
Longest time waiting at a single border: 24 1/2 hours
Money raised for Charity: over $2,000 and counting (plus donation of our car)
Animals consumed along the way: cow, horse, chicken, sheep, goat, marmot, and others we'd rather not know about.
Trips to the mechanic: 3
Meachanics that spoke English: 0
hub caps lost: 2
tires puntured: 1
Rims Bent: 2
Chances I'll do this rally again: 0.00001%
Posted by Jason at 25th August 2009 at 10:34
Friends and Family,
Here is the the grand finale... our push from Baikal to Bataar.
We left Lake Baikal quite concerned about the state of our vehicle, but after a team vote of 2-1 (with Javier Abstaining) we decided to press on and limp to the finish line without undergoing reapirs to the rear suspension. Slowly but surely we drove about 8 hours to the border of Russia and Mongolia at 6:30 PM; to find that both sides of the border were shut down for the night. The Mongolain border authorities keep bankers hours, and completely shut down for weekends. We arrived on Thursday night, and after hearing horror stories of other teams being stuck in between countries for days with little food or water, we knew we HAD to get through the next day. So we parked our car 7th in line and waited in it all night for the border to open.
The next morning, the line started moving around 9 AM. We cleared Russian customs at noon, and showed up to the mongolian side needing to acquire a specific form that would allow us to donate our vehicle in Mongolia and forgo thousands of dollars in import taxes. Having paid the rally organizers ahead of time for this one specific purpose our car was supposed to be on a preaproved list, and all the apropriate paperwork should have been in their posetion. And of course there was no record of our vehicle whatsoever. Keep in mind everything taking place at the border is not in English. Javier and I spent hours hounding various officials, pointing to forms, making phone calls to Ulaan Bataar, drawing pictures, and doing whatever possible to get us through before we are left there for the weekend with 5 packs of Ramen and a couple bottles of water. Finally around 4 O'clock we get word that the paperwork we need from the rally organizers is being faxed over...It doesn't come. The 1 fax machine in there office looked like it belonged in a museum and had ceased to work. Now its about 5 o'clock and we have two hours before closing, when a Mongolian woman aproaches me. It turns out her sister works behind the rally office, and she calls her to go to the office and tell them we are having problems getting through. Then she proceeds to yell at all the border officials in Mongolian to get the ball rolling, and tells us we are inivited to her house for tea once we pass the border. Still the officails would not budge until they had a physical copy of the apropriate paperwork, so I suggest Email, and they agree. We have the documents emailed to Javiers phone and their office. Of course their office doesn't recieve it because their network is down. At this point javi and I are behind their desks using their computers to print the document from Javi's phone while ignoring their pleas for us to just wait patiently in our cars as if their 1980s fax machine will suddenly spring to life. At exactly 7:00 our last paper was stamped, and our precious form was handed over. We were the last car to pull out before the border closed, 24 1/2 hours after we had arrived.
After a quick 30 minute drive down the road the Mongolian Woman who helped us at the border flagged us down, and brought us to her house for tea. Soon we were invited for dinner and asked if we would like to shower. we agreed and the next thing we knew, Eric is chopping wood and I am hauling it to light the furnace which would heat the well water for our shower. The shower was a sauna-like room with a cup to dip into the water, and branches of nice smelling leaves lashed together to scrub yourself with. After our showers dinner was served; and then the woman's son, a 28 year-old cop, insisted he take us out for a night on the town. we pile into his car, pick up a uniformed on duty officer to drive us around while we all drank in the back stopping at little local bars, piling more poeple into the car and basically having the run of the town with a police escort. It was all quite fun and hilarious, but in the end our exhaustion from the border shananagins forced us to be party poopers and eventually we had him take us back to his mom's house where we slept for the night.
The following day, we were fed again, and the woman isisted upon taking me to the town doctor after finding out about my shoulder being hurt. The Doctors office was in a small shack at the egde of town. The old man didn't waste much time examining my shoulder before moving my arm in places it didn't want to go while vigorously rubbing the shoulder muscles. This was EXTREMELY PAINFUL, I yelled and broked out in cold sweats, but the "doctor" didn't seen to notice and kept working at it. He proclaimed I would be healed in 5 days and I paid 3 dollars for his services. In the end my shoulder still hurts, but I can move it a little more.
Following that experience, the woman took us all to a traditional mongolian herders Ger which is the round tent like structures traditional to the mongolian nomadic lifestyle. We had some kind of watery goat or horse or yak yogurt, took some pictures, and then headed off. We all said our goodbyes to our lovely hostess, which were full of hugs and kisses, and then slowly made our final assault on Ulaan Baator. We Arrived at the finish line just as the finish party started. and enjoyed a great night of musical entertainment, drinking, and trading horror stories with other finishers. The following day we unpacked our car, gave up our keys and signed in officially as the 209th finishers of the 2009 Mongol Rally. At that point less than half the cars whp started had arrived.
Although the rally is officially over, perhaps yesterday was the most memorable and important day of the trip. We visited our charity, The Christina Noble Childrens Foundation. Although they have many programs, Their orphanage, The Blue Skies Ger Village, is 100% funded by teams in the mongol rally. This tiny village is like an Oasis on the outskirts of a poor, and dangerous city. There are 60 Children living there in traditional Mongolian Gers, with 1 formerly homeless woman in each Ger helping to look after them, creating a family unit in each Ger. The stories of these Children were heart breaking. There was a 5 year old girl who had been abandoned by her mother, left on the street, and gang raped before the foundation found her took her in and pressed the police to catch her perpetrators who are now serving 20 years in prison. There were many stories like hers, and it's hard to imagine how street children as young as 4 survive a single winter in Ulaan Bataar where it is not unusual for the temperature to dip below -50. But to see these kids smiling hitting volleyballs with us, getting music lessons, and going to school brought all of us a feeling that is hard to put into words. We took a lot of pictures which I hope to share soon, but I just wanted everyone who supported us to know that your donations went to an amazing cause that we could not be more proud of. Thank You.
The Siberian Scramble
Posted by Jason at 25th August 2009 at 09:07
Friends and Family,
Its now been at least a week since my last Blog entry... we have been disconnected from technology for the most part, but so much has happened, namely, WE ARRIVED AT THE FINISH LINE! But let me rewind and recap our trek through the Siberian wilderness
We left Astana, Kazakhstan and drove fore the border at breakneck speed, arriving at Dusk (9PM) to this crossing in the middle of NOWHERE. As soon as our car stopped we noticed it was surrounded by a swarm of the BIGGEST Mosquitoes I have ever seen in my life. "fly my pretties" Witter exclaimed referring to their close resemblence to the flying monkies in Wizard of OZ... these Mozzies were so big they could stand flat footed and make love to a Chicken! So we sat in our car for an hour or two with the windows rolled up tight, border line not moving at all, until our windows were more fogged than the sex scene from Titanic, and the smell of Witters shirt permiated into all of our pores. We were finally forced to relent and eject ourselves form the car to face the swarm, and the 40something degree cold. The Mosquitos out there were so relentless the 100% DET Military grade bug spray didn't even slow them down; I caught one biting me through two layers of clothes! Anyway after 7 hours of jumping in and out of the car, unpacking and repacking all our stuff to be searched by customs twice, and filling out our vzrious forms, we finally made it to Siberia, Russia at about 3 AM.
Siberia is Beautiful! we spent the next 3 days driving and camping In forests of Conifers and Birch trees, near rivers, and of course fighting off those damn Mosquitos! The people were all extremely firendly and outgoing, we felt as though it was the complete opposite of our experience in the European side of Russia. Yet as lovely as it all was we had a lot of ground to cover and were growing extremely anxious to get to lake Baikal, and then Mongolia. One afternoonwe had been driving about 8 hours, and we see a sign that says Lake Baikal is only 650 Kilometers away. So I suggest we drive all night and just get there, the team all agrees and we pump ourselves up, and continue to drive East away from the sunset... Soon after night falls, our enthusiasm for this plan is continually challenged. the aspahault disapears and the highway turns into a rutted out mess of mud and potholes. Then it starts to dump rain with the kind of raindrops that are so big they could almost be mistaken for hale. then we see another sign for our destination and it says it is know 950 kilometers away! So now its dark, pooring rain, in the middle of nowhere and we really have no idea how far away our destination is, we just know that stopping is not an option any longer and we are probably in for a hell of a night.
I'll fast forward now to 4:00 AM, we are driving in the mud still, through fog so thick you can only see about 10 feet in front of you and we pull into a random town where there are no signs and a whole bunch of forks in the road. we wander around lost for about 20 minutes or so when a car stops at an intersection and just kind of wathces us trying to make another U turn. We are a little freaked out wondering what the hell this car is doing, with no one else around. The driver rolls his window down and I roll mine down, and we begin our well practiced sign language, broken russian psuedo conversation. Somehow he knew we were lost, and motions for us to follow him. As we follow we debate in the car whether or not this is a prudent think to do and at what point to we break off if we think he's actually gonna kill us or something. But sure enough this stranger who came out of knowwhere drives us for 10 minutes winding around different roads right to the road we need to be on... He points us in the right direction, and then just heads off as mysteriously as he came...Just another guardian angel on our journey.
We Continued into the night, with the road so rough and fog so thick, at some points we were averaging 10 MPH. towns were very few and far between, sometimes we would drive an hour without seing a single road sign, car or trace of another human. As we crossed deeper into Eastern Siberia the and the sun began to rise, some of the towns looked comletely medeival. There would be nothing but a mud road, a few log cabins, with firewood stacked to the roof, and some wooden pens to hold livestock. It was like that movie The Village over and over again. All said and done, it took us 30 hours of driving without rest to reach Lake Baikal, the worlds largest lake. By this point the rear suspension in our car was completely shot. The back end sat 3-6 inches below the front, and every bump we went over made a loud clank in the back and if the suspension were disconnected or something.
We thought the lake would be more of a touristy place, but in reality there were just a few local fishing villages and lots of beautiful empty, mountainous terrain surrounding us. We stayed there two nights camping in different spots each night and just unwinding before the final push to Mongolia. The water in the lake is FREEZING! I don't know what the actual temperature was but after we all took a dip, getting out into the 60 degree air felt like being enveloped in a warm blanket. But being out in our little spot with peace and quiet, and the beauty of the lake is exactly what we needed. It was like sitting in the eye of a Hurricane. knowing our final push south to Mongolia still had plenty of adventure ahead.
Kazakhing me up
Posted by Jason at 13th August 2009 at 10:45
Friends and Family,
I'm Writing to you from Astana, the capitol city of the great nation of Kazakhstan. We have now been in this country for 6 days and have had a wonderful time! While guidebooks and citizens alike have warned us of extreme boredom, nothing to see or do, and the risk of bandits while crossing the empty Western Kazakhstan region; we have found it to be nearly the opposite. The people in Western Kazakhstan were very curious of us and our trip, welcoming, and friendly. The wide open expanses between towns provide a beautiful backdrop for replection on what America may have been like a century ago. The open pastures of the kazakh steppe have no fences so herds of wild and domesticated horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and even two humped camels run unabated.Large falcons, Hawks, and Eagles are constantly hovering above seeking out the next unfortunate rodent to become their prey.
While all of this scenery is quite liberating, the roads that take us through it are anything but. Driving toward Astana, we have heard the same thing from every kazakh local we ask about the roads, "Road to Astana, very good!"One must apply Einsteins theory of relativity to this description because their idea of a good road apparently is a partially paved unmarked strip of assfault riddled with potholes up to three feet deep and equally wide in diameter. At one point the potholes were so numerous that I found it beter to pull off the highway and drive on the farmers' dirt service roads used to navigate the adjacent wheat fields. For those of you who are familiar with the big Island I can sum up the last 10 days of driving much easier. Imagine driving the length of the United States on a combination of the worst parts of the old saddle road and Mana road and then add the afore mentioned potholes, 16 wheel big rigs coming at you, forks in the road with no signs (no gps), as well as frequent police stops. And speaking of the cops... we have developed a great method for dealing with them. As soon as the cop pulls us over we break out our map of kazakhstan, so the moment we gets to the window before he can even open his mouth we start pointing wildly all over the map, asking where are we? how do we get to Astana? and then finish it up with a big grin saying "we drive Mongolia!" Once we say that the cop will just look at us like we are completely crazy turn around and walk away without a word. One made the hand gesture of a gun and blew his own brains out, as if to say he'd rather kill himself! We have been pulled over as much as 4 times in 1 day but have no tickets to show for it...Since we've adopted this method, we haven't even had to show a license or registration! I call it the filibuster method.
While we have done plenty of camping in the middle of nowhere this last week, we also found some interesting towns like Actobe an oil rich town of 300,000 where people were absolutely shocked to see Americans. We walked into the local club on Saturday night and were recieved as if we were the Beatles! we made plenty of fast friends and danced and exchanged cultural lessons until the sun came up. The next night Eric and Witter were out with a few of our new friends eating at a cafe, when the subject of the movie Borat came out... They hate Borat with a passion! Eric tried to explain that the movie was really a parody of Americans, since its banned in kazakhstan and none of them had actually seen it, but they would not hear any of it! Borat is the Devil in Kazakhstan! Another nice stoppover was kokshetau, where we were passing on the highway and saw a group of kids playing soccer. We pulled the car over pulled out our soccer ball and had a half hour inpromptu game with a bunch of 12-15 year olds who couldn't have been happier to meet us. the younger ones who had been watching on the sidelines scraped up a few of their older siblings' cell phones and took turns doing gangster-like poses in front of our car while their firends took pictures. the whole thing was hilarious, and provided a nice break from the monotony of the road. When we packed up to leave we were chased out of town by a pack of 25 kids like the beatles... oh to be famous for just a moment!
So we are in Astana now, and its quite a strange place. It was named the capitol in 1997 and before that it was just a random non descript town in northern Kazakhstan. Since 2001 the government started pumping 8 to 10 percent of the national budget in to building a ultra modern flagship city. The result is mind bending futuristic buildings, with wide prominades, exquisite gardens, and a very hollow uneasy feeling considering there is barely anyone there! Anyway we will be leaving this place tomorrow and charging for the Russian border full steam ahead. We are going to try to get to Lake Baikal as quick as possible, seeing as there isn't much in between here and there. From Lake Baikal we are just a hop skip and a jump away from Mongolia, so keep your fingers crossed! We have driven about 5,500 miles across 14 countires now. we have two more borders and 3,000 to 4,000 miles left to cove. I'm starting to get anxious!
***Odor for Orphans update*** Brian Witter is Still wearing the shirt he left England in, and I wich you could see its condition! parts of this formerly bright red tee are starting to turn black! luckily for him everything in hte car smells bad at this point so we are dealing with the stench any way we can. Please donate for the street children of mongolia at www.justgiving.com/quarterlifecrisis
Can't Rush through Russia
Posted by Javier at 9th August 2009 at 10:01
...we apologize it has been one week since our last entry, but here it goes.
Last you heard it was last Sunday, August 2nd and we were going to leave Sochi, Russia... that did not happen. After the Scottish duo invaded our room in their kilts at 10am when they were just getting back to the hotel, we decided to go to the beach for a while before leaving as planned. However, we have accepted that plans are never set in stone and we are open to anything on this adventure. Speaking of stones, the beach in this resort town of Sochi is not sand, but rather stones (far different than what Eric and Jason are used to in Hawaii). We had a quick lunch at our usual cafe with the Scottish boys (we spent hours at this cafe the day before waiting for our drivers and it inherently became our meeting spot; the same waitress served us every time outside where we watched the parade of Russians on the boardwalk), then we grabbed some adult beverages at one of the many beachside shops and chilled at the beach, befriending other locals, learning more Russian, and watching Raymond swim in his kilt and then lay on the rocks like a beached whale. It did not take long to recognize we would not be leaving yet, so we were swimming in the Black Sea and jumping off a large rock, soaking in the sun and chillaxin after the previous day of customs delays. While on the rock, I looked back to the beach to see my friends now accompanied by about 5 Russian officials! uhhh... should I go or stay back in case I need to get help? I was yelling to get their attention, but was purposely ignored so I would not be included in the roundup. Fortunately, they were all released soon after a couple of our new local acquaintances paid bribes. I'm sure you will get firsthand details of the meeting from one of my teammates. Eric took off after that, but Jason, Brian and I stayed at the beach expecting Eric to return shortly. After a couple hours we went to look for Eric and get dinner, but still had not located him. After dinner we went back to the boardwalk cafe and found the Irish team and Raymond there. Around 10 we were heading back to the hotel and finally ran into Eric with Stuart (the second half of the Scottish duo), so we were all reunited. I stuck with Stu and Eric while Jason and Brian went to get ready before we all went to the outdoor Vegas-style club there called Malibu. Once Stuart called it a night (after about 48 hours), Eric and I stayed at Malibu trying to start the dance party as we waited for Jason and Brian; the dance party started once the foam machine started and dance floor was being covered with foam and Eric was dancing/jumping/running around like a four year old in the McDonalds playhouse. I soon joined his excitement and we were having a blast living it up, dancing, and pulling reluctant girls into the foam; it was not long before most of the crowd was in there and fortunately Jason and Brian showed up to experience it, too. Brian capitalized on the opportunity and stood under the foam machine to give his shirt a "wash." Don't forget to donate to Odor for Orphans as he is still wearing the t-shirt. What an ending to a great day - we all danced into the morning hours before heading back to the hotel to sleep on the Scottish boys' floor (since we were not planning to stay, we did not reserve a room).
Considering our primary goal of getting to Mongolia, we actually did leave the next day, Monday. I drove along the mountainous Black Sea coast until about 6pm when we came across a beachside campground (and the beach was sand!). We were anxious to camp, eat, and rest so we agreed this was a good spot. This campground was unlike any you will find in the States, especially at a beach, with a carnival type atmosphere, games, many shanty-style shops and beer vendors, restaurants and Techno bumping dance rooms. We ate dinner, shared the sunset on the beach, then enjoyed our hookah on the beach before calling it a night.
Tuesday was a long day on the road. Eric drove for about 10 hours averaging 45 mph because of construction and frequent police checkpoints. In Russia, you do not get pulled over as in America where a cop gets behind you and pulls you over (their cars probably could not keep up); instead, the cops stand at these checkpoints and just signal whoever they want to pull over. We did stop at one of the many roadside fruitstands and got some healthy stuff, which was good because lunch and dinner on the road are frequently just meat and bread ordered by making animal sounds or because that is all they have. After Eric got tired, I got behind the wheel and soon found a picnic area. Behind it there was a parking lot and then a dirt road with trees where we thought was the best spot to camp off the road since it was getting dark. Seeing the trash that had accumulated there, we were sure we weren't the first to hang out there. After dinner at a nearby cafe, we set up our tents, enjoyed each other's company around the hookah and called it a night. Several times throughout the night a car or truck would zoom by on the dirt road (about 5 feet away). Fortunately, no one messed with us, although it did poor down rain for a while during the night.
Twenty minutes into our drive on Wednesday, I got pulled over at one of those checkpoints. The cop in the office said I was speeding, showed a picture of a non-existent speed limit sign of 40 km/hr, showed a picture of our car clocked at 99km/hour (not even 60 mph), and said it would be 2500 rubles; after seeing other offenders in the office pay 500 (at least 8 cars were pulled over), we worked it down to 500 rubles ($16-$17), which we did not pay in the office, but behind the building where the money went straight into the cop's pocket. We did made it to Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. We got a hotel here after three nights of sleeping on the floor. We stayed right in the center of this city, where the deadliest battle in history occured during WWII between Russia and Hitler's army. We took it easy, had dinner, walked around the plazas and promenades, played air hockey while having a beer out in the plaza near the water, and then called it a night. Oh ya, we also got laundry service at the hotel and it was over $100! Supposedly it was so much because we asked for express service... it was not much laundry, but it cost more than our freakin room. oh well.
Thursday we continued on our journey toward Kazakhstan. We got our jerry cans filled and hit the road. Or rather, the road hit us. We started to see and feel the effects of more weight (jerry cans) combined with less maintained roads. Eric drove slower and our shocks held up as we were driving toward a bridge on the map to cross the river, but eventually the road ends right before the water and we are a T in the road. To the left are a few cars and trucks waiting for the ferry we see on the water. What the heck!? No bridge afterall. haha. We waited 2 hours for the next ferry at 8:30pm, which was also the last ferry so we better get on it! The setup at this place would definitely not be up to code in America. Literally a dirt area, rackety ramps over a barge onto the small ferry. But it got us across. During this time we were continuously approached, questioned, smiled at, and looked at weirdly by a group of gypsies that were riding in a caravan of 4 cars. A couple of those guys did help me buy the tickets, though, so we thought it might be better to be friendly so they would not want to do anything to us, rather than avoid them and have them be more careless toward us. Another great sunset and full moon on our third ferry ride. Jason drove off the ferry and we continued on the crappy road. Although the "highway" did not end, the pavement suddenly did! For a while Jason was not just on a dirt road, but off-roading on a track that looked like it had been used for a car derby during the muddy season. We were ahead of the gypsies and had not eaten since lunch, so we stopped to eat at a roadside cafe around 10pm. More bread and meat (chicken this time). Not long after we ordered, the group of gypsies showed up! Jason went out to check on the car and saw a few just staring at it, either perplexed by our funky ride, or wondering how to get a piece of the I-pod, cameras and other goodies which they had persistently asked us how much they cost. The cafe security guard was on our side, we ate outside to keep an eye on the stuff, and left as soon as we could to get a head start on the gypsies who seemed they would still be there a bit. We stopped shortly after to fill up and the 4 vehicle caravan was there within 3 minutes... weren't they still at the cafe? Were they following us? We were not necessarily trying to avoid them before, but now we were more skeptical. Anyway, we hit the road again just needing to get near Saratov for a hotel, and we could not stop now because they were on our tail. Eventually they passed us (the second car in the caravan did not even have working lights), and at around 1 am we got to our destination, but there was no hotel... so Jason and I thought we might just have to keep driving to the Kazakh border still 5 hours away. We were trying to figure out where exactly we were and how to get to the highway we were looking for. We entered a store and were trying to get directions, but the language barrier was overwhelming. It was now 1:15am and we had to make a move. We went back out to the car to discuss our next move, and by then a local Russian was talking to Eric and Jason with a cop car and officers nearby. Were the cops going to escort us to the highway? was this guy a cop? I did not know what was going on. I approached the group and this guy to see what was being discussed. Eric explained this local was offering us a place to stay and he was probably a cop, and with no other options we should trust him. I was definitely skeptical, but the group decided to go with this guy who seemed friendly and trustworthy. He took us to a building he said was his office, had us park our car behind the building, and we got in his car (at least it was a nice Chrysler 300) with him at 1:30am. What the **** is going on? where are we? who is this guy? where was he taking us? is that alcohal in his breath? what would he do to our stuff or us? Just going with it and hoping for the best as I prayed. He wanted to feed us so we drove to a cafe, but they were not serving food anymore (go figure at that time), so he got upset and we left. He then proceeded to show us all the pictures in his cell phone - friends, son, places he'd visited, wife - while waiting to get an answer on our place to stay. A lady called him a few times as he was explaining he was with us and we needed to sleep, but it seemed she was not convinced. So then, blasting Russian rock, he drove us to a store and bought beer, bread, salami, and cheese before we drove back to where our car was; he had the lady that watches the building open the door for us and he took us up to his offices.
It was 2 am on Friday and we were in this guy's office, drinking, eating and communicating with his minimal english, eric's minimal russian, sign language, and lots of pictionary. He got his guitar and played it between conversations, at one point tearing off the top of a cigarrette box to use as a pick. We finally figured out that it was his 38th birthday, this Friday August 7th. (That is why he showed us his passport in the car!) We sang him Happy Birthday and the celebration continued. This is what he wanted to do on his birthday - hang out with 4 Americans, drink, be merry, show off, discuss history and cultures, share music, wrestle me and Jason (more like drop us), and not sleep. He gave us 2 Russian Rock cd's and a Russian history book that is Not in English. This guy was crazy! We also deciphered that he was not a cop, but rather a lawyer! so it was now like 5:30am and we were thinking about a couple hours of sleep on the wood floor, but he then got the brilliant idea of going swimming in the river instead! Throughout this whole time, Eric, Jason, Brian, and I would occasionally look at each other, perplexed by our situation, glad it ended up being safe, excited this guy was crazy, and happy to be experiencing the Mongol Rally. When or how else would we ever be doing this? So Jason goes for round 2 of wrestling this Russian bear and dislocates his shoulder before we all go back downstairs to his car and drive to swim in the river at about 6 am. Our host, Eric, and Brian strip down and jump in the river (aka, a canal) and are re-energized as the sun is rising across the sky from the full moon still illuminating this whole story. Then he takes us to a statue of the first man in space, a Russian astronaut of which he is very proud, and we hang out there for a while. At this point we are ready to either sleep or hit the road, but we are at his mercy. I had not drank much and sobered up so we could get to Kazakhstan on this Friday; now I accepted I would start the drive with no sleep. Finally, at 7:30am, he drives us back to our car and we say our goodbyes. The lawyer was not able to get us a place to sleep, but the alternative turned out to be much more eventful and exciting for us and for him, on his 38th birthday this Friday in Russia. At 8am I was behind the wheel with Jason navigating in the passenger seat, as Eric and Brian were snoring in the back seat, resting before their turn to take the controls in about 4 hours.
Do crazy things happen on full moons? It seemed to be a spotlight on us this night which progressed from gypsies to Russian lawyers, on a stage set in Russia, our story of the Mongol Rally we could never have scripted any better.
From Russia With Love
Posted by Brian at 2nd August 2009 at 07:54
Hello comrades! We have entered Mother Russia, a country larger than all of the ones we have been through to this point, combined. We left Istanbul around noon on Thursday headed for an unknown destination in Northern Turkey. I say "unknown" because we had little to no info on the ferry we planned on taking from Trabzon, Turkey to Sochi, Russia. Only some semi-reliable information we had found in online blogs some months back. Anyway, the drive from Istanbul to Trabzon is roughly 14 hours so we were pretty sure we weren't going to make it in one day. We had agreed earlier in the trip that driving at night would probably be dangerous, especially in a foreign country where we can't really read road signs half the time. The drive from Istanbul to Samsun, Turkey would prove us right.
The terrain was beautiful. The part of Turkey we were in was very mountainous and green. We stopped at a roadside kebab place where it seemed Americans had never traveled before. No one spoke English and they were staring at us like we were from Neptune. The proprietor cooked us up some mutton and we even found another tire for our car across the street, so now we have three spares. Soon after we left, night fell and the dynamic of the day's trip changed. Drivers in this part of the world have little patience and will attempt to pass you at any rate, even if it means staring death in the face. Not wanting to fail experiencing local culture, Eric, who was driving, tried his hand at passing trucks, slower cars, and the occasional tractor with a peasant family of five piled on the back. The thing is though, our car is so heavy that acceleration is not one of our car's superpowers. At one point, we tried to pass a slow moving semi truck (or lorry for you European folk) but failed to notice the pair of headlights in the oncoming direction. I can only say that the silence in the car as we came within inches of the car on the left side of the road and the truck on the right was deafening. Luckily, Eric is a highly experienced Super Mario Kart gamer so he had seen this scenario before and was able to steer us clear of a date with fate. Another frightening episode on the Turkish Road of Death occurred when we spotted what appeared to be a cyclist with no reflective lights whatsoever on the opposite side of the road. As we drew closer, we saw that it was not a lost Tour de France rider, however a wheel that had come off a semi truck up the road and was rolling downhill at a breackneck speed. Said semi truck, meanwhile, was trying to pull to a halt while not trying to careen off the road. After all of this, we decided we better stop and made it to a hotel in Samsun, Turkey for a quick nap before trying to get to Trabzon.
An Irish team (Trailer Park Paddies) whom we had met at the Czechout party and was taking the same ferry as us, had been in contact with us and we found out there was a ferry leaving for Sochi, Friday at 8pm. We awoke the next morning, early, and made the pretty seaside drive to Trabzon in about three and a half hours. The ferry cost about $600 for us but I think it may have been worth it because we were able to meet up with three Rally teams who were taking the same ferry which would prove beneficial over the next 24 hours. In addition to meeting up with TPP, we met Team Horse On (a couple of wacky Scotsmen who like to wear kilts and wreak havoc, Stewart and Raymond) and No Right Turn (an Australian and Indian driving an ambulance). After spending about 5 hours at the ticket office and going through customs on the Turkey side of the Black Sea, we were finally bound for Mother Russia. The sunset was indescribably beautiful on the Black Sea as the four teams pretty much took over the entire outside deck, celebrating the fact that we had made it this far with some $3 wine the Paddies had purchased at a grocery store and which came in a plastic 2-liter bottle. So much class, you don't even know. The ferry ride was a quick one because we all missed dinner and ended up conquering the 1st class lounge as well, playing jenga and cackling loudly while the other passengers tried to slumber. The captain gave us his full blessing though, as one of the passengers attempted to protest our games but with the skipper pretty much blowing them off. And in 1st class no less! I'm pretty sure we all had economy tickets.
Then the real fun began as we pulled into the Sochi harbor and made our foray into Russian customs which makes the DMV look like a Sunday picnic. We all got through in under an hour. Our visas were all in order so we got no hassle for our passports. It was our car that they wouldn't release to us. It's not like we were singled out specifically...everyone who had a car on the ferry, including Russian citizens got to experience the same runaround at the customs office. While each team's driver got to sit inside the office filling out various customs and insurance forms, the rest of the teammates had to endure a torturous afternoon of drinking on the Sochi boardwalk while we waited for our cars. Serendipity struck again as we met a Russian guy named Leo who helped everyone fill out the Russian paperwork which was (obviously) all in Russian. Lord knows how long it would have taken if we hadn't met up with these other teams and if we hadn't met Leo. All in all, it took about 11 hours to get through Russian customs before we finally got our car and got to our hotel room. Not the most pleasant experience of our lives but it could have been worse.
The jury is still out on Russia because we still have so far to go in this place and we've been here less than a day. We got a little bit of the Cold War sentiment last night when some guy flipped us off after he heard us speaking English. Not everyone is like that, however, and most of the other people we've encountered have been pretty civil. All of the women look like runway models fresh off the catwalk in Milan and a lot of the dudes are fat and like to wear mullets. I don't think I've figured this place out quite yet. Today we are going to head towards Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and probably camp en route. We'll see you when we see you.
P.S. Day 16 of wearing this shirt and still going strong. It has started to fade and is nearly permanently starched but is getting easier by the day. Anytime I get a good ribbing from one of the guys, I just need to give them a bear hug before they quiet down. (Odor for Orphans - www.justgiving.com/quarterlifecrisis)
A poem for Istanbul
Posted by Jason at 29th July 2009 at 12:59
The Bospherous breeze provıdes a constant reprıeve from summer´s sunny heat,
scents of exotıc smokes, pıpe tobacco, cıgar, and apple shısha curl between the earthy odors
of fresh corn roastıng on sıdewalk carts, partıng the thıck flow of human traffıc rarely dıstrurbed,
even by the dıstant echo of of prayer boomıng by loudpeaker denotıng dawn´s arrıval.
Women´s skırts flow freely adorned wıth fılıgrous patterns brıghtly colored as the stands
showcasıng rows of turkısh delıght, drıed fruıts, nuts, and seeds of all sızes. Istanbul ıs
the place where two contınents collıde, creatıng a cıty that ıs more of neıther than the sum of both,
whıle the whıte crescent and star are never far, flyıng faıthfully overhead to remnınd me,
of a prıde I have never known.
Don't Play The Fool Go To Istanbul
Posted by Eric at 29th July 2009 at 09:37
All ıs well ın ıstanbul turkey. ı absolutely love ıt here. We arrıved monday nıght after a solıd 10 hours of drıvıng. ı have come to enjoy drıvıng more and more due to ıts therapeutıc nature although my opınıon may change once we enter Russıa and are constantly pestered by authorıtıes. The border crossıng ınto ıstanbul, Turkey was coıned by delays, confusıon, and ıncompetence. We were dırected from buıldıng to buıldıng only to be told that we need to go to another buıldıng to receıve ınstructıons to go to another buıldıng and then go back to another buıldıng to pay for somethıng that would get somethıng checked off the lıst to get ever so closer to gettıng ınto thıs damn country. The process took about 2 hours. Drıvıng ın ıstanbul, Turkey ıs stressful. And by stressful ı mean that ı have 4 ulcers. I am confused how ı managed not to crash the car ın our weavıng through narrow streets, ınsane slopes, curvy roads, confusıng road sıgns, one-way streets, all whıle dodgıng pedestrıans who have no understandıng of natural selectıon. After seeıng Javıer take the wheel yesterday, ı am convınced he was a cab drıver ın hıs former lıfe, but ı am now on my 5th ulcer due to hıs wıllıngness to drıve down what appear to be pedestrıan-only streets.
Yesterday, Tuesday, we enjoyed an afternoon at the beach. We got all huffy and puffy when we learned that ıt would cost us about eıght dollars to get ınto the beach area, but we paıd regardless. To be perfectly honest, I fınd ıt ınterestıng that when we encounter an authorıty, staff, waıter, etc. we almost expect them to understand Englısh. If they dont, we see ıt, sadly almost to a fault, as theır problem, not ours. Usually, we wıll sıt blankly and look at the person assumıng that mıraculously the barrıers of language wıll evaporate and they wıll understand us ıf we repeat ourselves. As we venture further East, Englısh speakers wıll become ıncreasıngly scarce. Thıs ıs a learnıng experıence for us all.
The people and culture of Turkey are amazıng. We have experıenced a generosıty, helpfulness, and frıendlıness that ıs unparalleled. When we have been lost ın the cıty, people come up to the car to help. When we are decıdıng between foods at a restaurant, people at a nearby table wıll let us try theır meal. When we ask for suggestıons, they go above and beyond to make us feel welcome. The cıty ıs full of good people, vıbrant musıc, and an oveall posıtıve vıbe. I wıll defınıtely return to Istanbul, Turkey ın the future.
A lıttle funny story about a possıble cultural dıfference between Istanbul and San Francısco...Last nıght when walkıng home from a local bar, a salsa club caught the eye of Javıer. As we approached the club, the bouncers adamantly stated "Couples Only" to us 4 unkept males. I jokıngly proceeded to put my around Jason and saıd "OK." The bouncer ımmedıately asked "Do you have a %&?*+%& problem?" ın a threatenıng tone. Our walk quıckly turned ınto a powerwalk towards our hostel. Wıtter remınded the three of us that we are ın Muslım country. Thıs ıs a learnıng experıence for us all.
Lıfe ıs good. Today ıs for sıght-seeıng and tomorrow we wıll head East for a couple day journey to Trabzon, Turkey, where we wıll take a ferry through the Black Sea to Sochı, Russıa.
Covering miles with friendly smiles
Posted by Javier at 27th July 2009 at 08:26
So far the journey has been quick as we have woken up in our 11th country on this Monday, the 10th day. Fortunately, we have managed to have a good and unique experience in every country (except, I guess, Slovakia which we just drove through). Highlights of great local meals we've had include Weiner Schnitzel in Germany (not the hot dog chain), potatoes and any meat with gravy in the Czech Republic, Rindfleisch Grostl in Vienna, Austria (our favorite lunch so far of potatoes and meat and onions with a side of pickled cabbage - see us eating this in the Gallery), and Pljeskavica in Belgrade, Serbia (a local style berger, with better bread and a mixed meat patty). Also, going out has provided some unique sights, such as Club Cross in Prague where there were several levels, many different rooms, a "counter culture" crowd, live rock music or a dj spinning reggae, and a decor which was creatively made of probably everything at a metal recycling yard (engines, rims, metal railing, fans of windshield wipers with neon lights, and other funky details); also, in Budapest we went to Morrison's which also had several different rooms with different themes, such as a traditional bar area, 2 rooms with hip hop dj's, a karaeoke room, and outside terrace for those that wanted fresh air or a more chill setting to mingle. We have also discovered that Foosball is much more competitive in this part of the world as tables are abundant and our skills have not provided easy victories as back home. We have been pretty tired as we have been trying to experience as much as we can in our limited time in each city, but also having to spend much time driving.
I have really felt a higher power watching us, especially the last few days. Some call it karma, some serendipity; I call it blessings. Despite being robbed, the situation could have been worse if one or two of us stayed in the room - who knows what could have been done to us? we lost valuable things and documentation of this trip, but we are all ok. Before that, the way everything worked out for Brian and Jason to get the car stuff done and the mechanic that helped us so selflessly, the fact that Eric and I found maps we couldn't even find in the States, and the peace and joy we experienced at the pools in Budapest had us on top of the world (Brian also lost his locker key in one of the pools and later actually FOUND it to avoid paying the fee to replace the lock - granted, he did creep some people out as he hovered inpools and spas with goggles on). We have not had issues crossing borders and people have been helpful even if they do not speak english. Signs for hostels in the last two cities are not obvious and street signs are not in english, but we have found the ones we booked with Brian's city maps and navigation skills, my driving, the passengers' calm, and, I believe, some guidance from above.
Belgrade was awesome. We found the hostel right in front of where we parked to try to figure out where the heck it could be. We entered and were refreshed with a welcoming staff and joyful crowd from Australia, England, and Denmark, who shared local liquor and their 2 liter bottles of beer (yes, they have plastic 2 liters of beer there). Yesterday we walked around and went to the big Orthodox Serbian church which is still under construction inside, saw the contrast of bombed out buildings next to government palaces, saw beautiful women, and walked through a fortress. Then, on our way of town, I guess I made an illegal left turn... and got pulled over. not by a car, but by an officer who walked out on the street and held up a sign for me to pull over. Fortunately, his limited english, our friendly faces and cooperation, and maybe that I told him we were leaving town convinced him a ticket was worthless and he let us go (I will Never make a left turn there again, I promise!). Our good fortune continued. Then we got our first flat tire on the way to Bulgaria - can't figure out how, but it happened. Fortunately, we are prepared and fixed it quickly. We continued on the highway with views of a green land with much agriculture, rolled through tunnels without lights, crossed another border, and made it to Sofia, Bulgaria. Again, we arrived late, but were hungry and someone pointed us to a local fancy looking restaurant open at midnight, where the prices were sooo cheap! we literally had a feast for $40.00. We are convinced there isn't much to see here in Sofia and want to get to Istanbul tonight, so we are leaving now.
I'm trying to update pics in the Gallery when I can (I'm taking them with my phone so it is easier to upload) and we will update our actual current route soon. We have trecked about 2000 miles now.
The Roller Coaster falls
Posted by Jason at 25th July 2009 at 12:07
Friends and Family,
The theme fo this trip so far has been Roller coaster. Pardon the Cliche of the statement but the it is really the only way I can describe what we have gone through up this point... and with every day the ups and downs are more extreme than the last. Yesterday in Budapest was the perfect example. We woke up with a lot to do, in a city where it seems noone knows more than a few words of Englishand sprawls out over an area that is probably larger than LA. Witter and I faced the task of figuring out why the car was making a strange rattle.. Now imagine trying to find a Suzuki mechanic if it was your first day in LA and all the signs were in Hungarian, and all the people spoke Hungarian...daunting As we drove around we debated with ourselves whether or not Americans showing up to a random Hungarian Mechanic would do more harm or good for our car and rally. Yet, not wanting to go into Asia not knowing what was wrong was too disconcerting for us so the search contued. Through a series of serendiputous events We managed to find a mechanicunder a carwash on the outskirts of Budapest. His name is Berger. After lifting the car we found that our problem was much more simple than we had feared we simpley need to weld a small pipe back to the exhaust. We asked how much and Berger told us 1000 hungarian...or 5 dollars! of course we said yes and Berger proceeded to weld it back on right on the spot with short sleeves, no gloves, or eye protection. All we could do is cringe as we watched molten metal sparks land on his face and arms... Berger was unfazed... they make em tough in Hungry. Once finished we asked Berger If he happened to have a spare tire that would fit our car, surprisingly even though it wasnt a tire shop he did. We asked how much and he left and came back with a decal for our car. and said free. by the time we left we had procured two spare tires, and had our rattle fixed and Berger refused to take any money! So we promptly went to the store and bought him a 6 pack of Hungarian Lager and delivered it back to the shop to his delight. Unbelievable. We left the shop on top of the world.
When we got back the team decided to kill two birds with one stone and get out of the heat while experiencing Hungarain culture at a 200 year old spa that consisted of pools of every size and tempurature, from freezing cold to boiling hot. There were also steam rooms, food and drink, and of course beautiful people everywhere. It was unreal and we left feeling relaxed, energized and ready to take on a big traditional Hungarian dinner. Unbeknownst to us while we ate drank and laughed Someone was in our hotel room filing through our belongings and stealing most of my camera equipment Witters laptop, and my portable hardirve which held all the footage I took, as we as preventing me from taking any more footage with the small amount of equipment I have left. This has changed the entire tone of the rally for me. I do not hold anything against Budapest or Hungary because We found the City and people to be both beautiful, welcoming, and friendly before this incident. And frankly it could and does happen anywhere. I cant speak on this too much because I am only about 2 hours removed from our lovely experience with the police (which you can read about in Erics entry below). The whole thing is very upsetting and I feel as though I have let myself and others down by coming back from a trip of a lifetime empty handed. At the rate we have been losing and breaking things I expect to arrive in Mongolia with little more than my passport in my pocket. Which is completely fine with me because the only shit I cared about is already gone, but memories cant be taken (my profuse apologies for another horrible cliche).
Anyway we are off to Belgrade today. We changed our plans and are skipping Romania for the Balkins instead. Why? As my only Romanian friend Tudor put it whe I asked what I should do while in Romania, he said Get the hell out of Romania. So you may have an image of war torn, bombed out, post genocide Belgrade being an even worse option, but in fact, It has been recomended by many Europeans and fellow ralliers we have met so far. The city is one of the fastest growing in Europe, and apparently pretty safe given the large UN peacekeeping force still in place. We will let you know when we get there. It is also a more direct route toward Istanbul, Turkey where we expect to arrive tomorrow night or the next day, depending on how ambitious we are. Until then wish me luck!