Monday, September 17, 2012

Part IX : Fixing Seymour, muddy bogs, and lightning storms

The washboard road went on for miles and miles, we stopped only to repair a flat tire on the Getz and to have lunch. We got as far as possible before setting up camp in a desert valley. That night, Byron detailed the Mongolian locals' stories about the Gobi Death Worm, which is said to shoot acid from its mouth, be able to electrocute you from its tail, and if seen should be ran away from at the highest possible speed in the hope that it can't catch up (it can). After enjoying the lightning storm on the distance, the plainly visible Milky Way, and keeping a constant watch for 5 foot long red worms, we went to bed.

Unsuspecting victims enjoying the scenery just before the Gobi Death Worm attacks
We made great time the next day, getting to Altai at around 11 AM. The main stop in Altai is the Mongol Rally Auto Service, which consists of about half a dozen mechanics and a small garage. We fixed all of our broken tires, and found just before we were about to leave that the rear left suspension on the Perodua had snapped near the lower mount and by sheer luck was still suspending the frame above the axle! We quickly found replacements, and with a log and some brute force, we were able to mount new springs. They were about an inch longer though, and much stiffer, so when we were done the car sat about two inches higher in the rear. With the mud and the lift, Seymour was looking like a real rally car!

All was not perfect however, since because of the fact that the dampers weren't changed, the car without any weight in the rear was hitting the upper limit of the damper's length, and over bumps would impact that limit repeatedly, likely ending in a total failure. We loaded up the back of the Perodua as much as we could with fuel, water, and all of our other heavy supplies in the hope that this would reduce the possibility of breaking the dampers.

While getting the suspension fixed, we also discovered that the exhaust was broken just aft of the muffler, and the tube itself was covered in rust holes. One of the mechanics fixed the holes by adding a thick wire to reinforce the location, strapped to the exhaust with some smaller bailing wire, smeared the whole thing with JB weld, and at our suggestion the whole thing was wrapped in Aluminum tape. This section was then welded to the muffler, the bolts being too rusted to be used again. The exhaust was also shortened slightly to keep it from interfering with the muffler. Hopefully this will last us to Ulaanbaatar!

While waiting for everything to get fixed, we also had an opportunity to talk to some of the other teams. We had it relatively lucky, with some teams having broken oil sumps, holes in their transmission housing, broken front suspension, malfunctioning radiators, and every other type of problem you might run into along the rally. Just before leaving, the four car convoy pulled into the Auto Service! More surprising was that the Citroen suspension was fixed in Khovd and had been working fine since! We had exactly 43 dumplings at a nearby restaurant while exchanging some stories with the Brits and Tony from Colorado. After having everyone sign the Perodua, we left for Bayankhongor, the next major city along our route to Ulaanbaatar.

We made good time, but it had rained heavily the previous night. We worked our way through most of the mud, but eventually got stuck in a silty bog. It was easy to walk through, but Seymour sank in with all of the weight he was carrying.

As much as we tried we couldn't get the car out of the silt. While we were trying to force the car out, two Lexus SUVs drove by. One started backing into the bog to try to help us out, but sank in as well! The other SUV almost got stuck trying to help the first out of the muck, but the first SUV kept digging deeper and deeper into the silt. We did our best to help them out, but it was so deep that it was an almost pointless effort.

We set up a tent for one of the mothers and her kid so that they would be shielded from the wind while trying to figure out a way to get their SUV out of the bog. Eventually, a large semi truck passed by, and it happened to have a large steel cable. There was some sketchy failures, the weak link being the figure-8 knot they used to tie the cable to the truck. Eventually, the truck was able to pull out the SUV, and the Perodua, and we managed to get the Getz through the bog unscathed. The owner of the SUVs wouldn't take our offers to pay him for his help; instead he gave us his number and invited us to his home in Ulaanbaatar, an offer we will undoubtedly be accepting when we arrive.

Although we did our best to direct some of the locals towards the best route through the bogh, while setting up camp, a van full of kids and older women got stuck in the same place we did! We gave them water, some food, about a dozen light sticks, as well as all of the tools they might be able to use, but we knew that without a large truck and the cable that we used to get out, they might be stuck overnight. Eventually a large SUV came by and using our ratcheting tie down straps and some luck, they were able to get out of the swamp.

We camped there for the night, sleeping until a ferocious lightning storm passed over our campsite. It didn't help that we were likely still in the floodplain of the bog, so we retreated to the relative safety of our cars until the storm passed.

The next day we moved as intelligently as possible, walking through every bog and swamp, and carefully planning our routes through. We got to Bayankhongor without getting stuck once, and after restocking on food, immediately left for Arvaikeer, where (if the legends hold true) pavement runs between it and Ulaanbaatar!

After getting around 75 miles in towards Arvaikeer, we set up camp early, fearing some intimidating storm clouds. A passing storm made heating water for dinner difficult, but eventually the storm passed, and we had a good meal before heading to bed early.

A view over the steppe after the storm had passed
We were woken by an angry local claiming the land we were camping on was his, so we packed up quickly and gave him a pair of the weird sunglasses we found in Vienna. The thought of some local riding his motorcycle around Mongolia wearing those silly sunglasses overrode any sentimental attachment we had to them.

Along the way, we took a wrong turn and ended up on the wrong side of a valley, with a river running between us and the other side. We took the road until we found a river crossing too deep for our cars, before turning around and trying to meet up again with the main road. We ran into an ambulance driven by some British ralliers on the way back and warned them of the river ahead, so they followed us back the opposite direction.

The main road turned out to cross the river at a fairly deep spot, and as we were getting out to check the depth, the Brits run straight through the river! They managed to get through, but judging by the amount of water that flowed out of their car when they opened their drivers side door, it was definitely too deep for our small cars at the location they took it, giving us the impression we'd likely need to be towed across. However, after some searching, we managed to find a route through, and got both cars safely across.

A few miles later, the pavement began! This meant we had successfully navigated the most difficult sections of Mongolia, the rest was (hopefully) smooth pavement! We stopped for some lunch and to celebrate, and while we were stopped we were overtaken by two more teams from the UK! One impressively traveled the entire distance from Altai to Arvaikeer without a clutch, and 5 people weighing their Renault down. They push started the car the entire way, and rev matched to change gears. The other car had no front dampers, so they've been having a bumpy ride on the rocky Mongol roads.

We decided to stop at a hotel in Arvaikeer, get some good food, a good night sleep in a real bed, and our first showers since leaving Astana, Kazakhstan (we definitely needed them). The food turned out to be great, we even had the same thing for breakfast.

There's still plenty of adventuring to be done, but we're allowing ourselves the hope that the worst is behind us.

Part VIII : Mountain passes, getting lost, icy rivers, and getting lost

We happily found that Eastern Russia’s police were far more agreeable that those near Sochi, and as a result we made good time driving through the night to Barnaul after leaving Kazakhstan behind us. After restocking on food and fuel in Barnaul, and then continued on towards to Mongol border.

We had heard that the drive after Barnaul would be beautiful, and we were pleasantly surprised that the rumors were true. The mountains were well worn, with plenty of open fields, curving roads, and churning rivers. About 200 miles from the border, we ran into four Mongol Rally teams on the road! They were from Scotland, the US, and the majority from England. Tony, one of the guys from the US, was attending a school only about 15 minutes from CU! He also knew a bunch of our friends that were attending the same school.

Some of the incredible scenery in this area of Russia...
...and Michael and Thomas' reactions to it
We camped with them for the night, but decided to leave super early the next morning. We had heard horror stories about the bureaucracy at the Mongolian border so we wanted to give ourselves as much time as we could. The Russian side turned out to be fairly easy, but the Mongol side would prove to be a little bit more difficult. We ran into some teams at the border that had been there overnight, waiting for the right combination of stamps and signatures that would grant them and their vehicle access to the country.

We used some of their advice to get Seymour accross the border before lunch (despite the best efforts of some intoxicated bureaucrats), but the Getz was stuck waiting on having the border guards finish their rather generous lunch. The Getz got through at around 3 PM, and we considered ourselves lucky to get through as quickly as we did. We were genuinely worried about the four teams we camped with the previous night, and thought that it would be difficult for them to get their cars through the border that day.

The Mongolian landscape was gorgeous, with dramatic rolling hills, and intimidating mountains. The nomadic gers and their livestock dotted the landscape. Our first obstacle would be an enormous mountain pass, which seemed to have a large road being constructed through it, but ended in a slope too steep for the Getz to climb. We turned around and took a side road, which finally got us to the summit of the pass, where a large Ovoo was waiting for us. An Ovoo is a shamanistic collection of stones, and there's a local tradition of throwing on a rock and walking around three times clockwise, which we enthusiastically did in the wrong direction by accident.

We spent the rest of our first day driving to Olgi, where we stocked up on fuel and got some local money. On the way out, it was getting dark, and if you've never seen Mongol roads, take a look. They tend to diverge in random directions, street signs are nonexistent, and many side roads end unexpectedly when you anticipated them to meet up with a main road. We ended up getting stuck on a bad road as it was getting late, and had to find and pitch our tents in the dark.

The following morning we were surprised to discover that our campsite was placed almost directly on a route used by some construction workers, and construction trucks were driving directly next to our campsite! We quickly packed up before they could kick us out, and started driving towards Khovd, the next major city.

Along the way, we were overtaken by the four cars we had met before the border! They managed to somehow get through the border into Mongolia the same day we did, and had been catching up since. They were moving at a much faster pace, but we decided to keep up with them for the day in case we needed each other’s help.

Seymour convoying with the Brits we encountered in Russa
We moved through some more mountain passes, with more than a few hills that made both cars struggle to maintain momentum. If there was one theme for the day, it would be the rivers. There were at least half a dozen that required careful planning to get our econoboxes across without flooding the cylinders with water or drenching the electronics. With some careful planning, and some reckless driving, we managed to get every car across each obstacle unscathed (mostly).

On one mountain pass, we encountered a man who was showing off his eagle to passing cars. Seeing one of these animals up close gives a better understanding of how effectively they've adapted to the harsh Mongol environment. They're claws seemed perfectly capable of tearing through the thick leather glove the handler used to hold the bird. We were even given an opportunity to hold him! The handler stated that he was 5 years old. Eagle hunting is still an active part of Mongol culture, there are even competitions where eagles catch a fox fur being pulled behind a horse.

Alex hiding his fear of the highly evolved hunter
After getting through most of the mountains, we inadvertently took a shortcut which bypassed a bridge over a major river. After some speculation as to how to cross it, we found that keeping the car on the left side, flooring the accelerator, and praying fiercely got every car across fine. We still had plenty of altitude to lose before Khovd, and between it and us was what felt to us like an automotive bobsled run, complete with banked turns and hidden rocks ready to destroy your car if you failed to see them hidden beneath the sand.

Unfortunately, one of the teams we were convoying with didn't see a hidden rock and broke their suspension. After some speculation as to how the quirky Citroen's suspension operated, we found that it was missing two bolts that mounted the rear axle to the frame, and in all likelyhood would fail within a couple miles. The team seemed distraught, and we thought it might not make it to Khovd, but because the sun was getting low on the horizon we were forced to press on.

Amazingly, the little Saxo got to Khovd perfectly fine, and because we had some bad experiences getting out of Olgii at dusk, we decided to let the four car convoy go ahead, and camped a few miles before reaching the city with some more teams we encountered while spending time inspecting the Saxo.

We left just after dawn the next morning to start our long journey to Altai, more than 400 km away from where we were. The dirt roads were covered in sand, and keeping up your speed was hugely important so that the car wouldn't get bogged down.

Along the way, there was a road on the map heading directly South, but we knew we had to head Southeast through a large valley in between two large mountains (they were labeled on the map as two mountains, but what we didn't know is that there were dozens of mountains next to the labeled peaks, and they just hadn't bothered to label the “lesser” summits). To make matters more confusing, our GPS unit indicated that there was a road heading Southeast about 5 miles back, but we didn't see a major road heading that direction.

Fearing we were heading on the road South towards China, we decided to drive off the road we were traveling and intersect the road we saw on our GPS. After driving for a few miles off road (through a harsh and unpopulated desert) in an attempt to find the main route, we found what appeared to be a vague set of tracks heading the right direction. It led us to an antenna tower, and we were encouraged that it was heading the right direction.

However, we eventually were stopped by a giant bog, and decided to turn around to go towards what looked like relative civilization and find our way to the main road. Some locals working on an isolated home in the middle of the valley gave us directions to the main road, some 10 km South. These directions were reinforced by another local near the antenna tower, so we set off hoping we'd see the major highway.

As it turned out, the major road turned out to be paved at the location we intersected it! If we had kept driving South, we would have intersected it fine. Driving on a paved road after so many miles of bumps and rocks is a strange sensation, sort of seemed like cheating, disconcerting at a minimum. We wouldn't have to worry for long, because the pavement quickly ended, and we were forced onto another sandy, rocky road.

Part VII : Doubling Our Distance in 96 Hours

After sleeping for a few hours in the car in front of the least sketchy looking building (a topic of no small debate within the team) in a small border town in Kazakhstan, we were awakened by a local so intrigued by our cars and ourselves that he simply had to wake us to talk to us. He didn't seem to mind that we were groggy and some of us shirtless. He insisted on having a picture taken with us and we answered all of his many questions before saying a pleasant goodbye, eating a very quick breakfast of cold oatmeal, and continuing on down the “road” to Atyrau.

We ran into some unexpected bureaucracy in Atyrau. As is standard practice for visa-required countries, if we were in Kazakhstan for more than 5 days, we needed to register with the government/police. Since we had planned at least 5 days to cross the country, we decided to be safe and register in Atyrau. While getting into the city, we stopped in a random alley to find an ATM, and were surprised to see two Mongol Rally cars! They were both English teams, and after meeting the whole gang, they mentioned that they needed to register as well. So, as a mighty legion of travelers we set out to find the nearest bureaucracy to accomplish this task.

After tracking down a police station (more like a police booth in reality), we were told to come back after lunch (which happens from about 1:00PM-3:00PM in Kazakhstan), and then being told that the building we wanted was actually down the street. After walking down the street, finding nothing, asking locals, and then venturing through several sketchy unmarked doors, we finally found the registration office.

After speaking at length with the officials in broken English, we were asked to fill out some complex paperwork and supply them with copies of several of our travel documents (though they staunchly refused to let us use their copier or tell us where we could find one). After finding a copier at a local store, we submitted our documents and played the waiting game for several hours until they were processed. Suspiciously, we were given our stuff back minutes before they closed and well after other groups who submitted their documents after us. However, the deed was done and many miles of Kazakhstan “roads” lay were laid before us, so we soldiered on.

At the far edge of the Atyrau, we stopped for gas with the British group and, purely by chance, ran into a man the Brits had met a few hundred miles earlier! He recommended we take a major detour to avoid the most direct road, which he assured us was in terrible condition. After some debate, we decided to take his advice and the detour, meaning we would head 500 km North, perpendicular to our intended direction through the country. This made us nervous, having already lost more time than we would have liked due to the ferry and the registration process, but we resolved to push our days as long as possible, and (if the roads allowed it) into the night as well.

The detour turned out to be incredibly smooth, and we made great time to Oral, the northern waypoint of our revised route. However, it was dark when we arrived and our new redcoat companions decided to camp just outside the city instead of joining us in our push. So, we pressed on alone.

Emboldened by the recent pristine roads, we set an aggressive pace towards Aktobe. For the most part the roads were excellent this direction as well, with the exception of some active construction that simply required slow driving on dirt road detours. Or so we thought.

About two hours outside Oral, just after rejoining the pavement in a construction zone, the Perodua hit a serious pothole. The pothole damaged both left wheels, and we found that the right front wheel was damaged as well, although not seriously enough to require replacement. This was slightly good news, because of the two and a half spares we had (the half being the half-sized spare, or “doughnut”), only one and a half would fit the Perodua. Two quick jacks and several turns of a wrench later, we continued driving through the night at a reduced pace, both for the sake of the remaining wheels and the limitations of the doughnut.

We arrived in Aktobe around noon in desperate need of wheel service. After asking half a dozen people and visiting as many supposed wheel mechanics with zero success (even one that had a picture of wheels on its sign was no help), we decided to visit the last, and decidedly most sketchy location we were recommended to. Salvation! With nothing more than an old house full of soviet-era industrial equipment and two determined men, we managed to fix all of our wheels in about an hour and they only charged us around $15! We threw in some whiskey and had them sign the car as a sign of gratitude. In return, they gave us their lucky car charm and insisted we take a picture with them.

With spirits high on new wheels and Kazakh hospitality, we continued the record-setting (as far as we can tell) push, now headed towards the new capital, Astana. Just as before, we encountered an enormous construction project during the graveyard shift and, like before, it forced us off onto a hastily made dirt detour. Unlike before, it had recently rained in the area, which made navigating the detour a far trickier task. With travel-weary eyes and the dead of the night working against us, we couldn't figure out how to avoid what appeared to be lake-sized puddles, so we decided to sleep for a few hours until sunrise and reassess the situation then.

When the next day came, it was indeed easier to find our way through the vexing maze of puddles, but one problem remained: we had no idea how to get back onto the highway. After meandering through some fields, farms, and villages at a glacial pace with the highway always in view but never accessible, we noticed that all of the trucks and traffic was passing on the other side of the highway. Reluctantly, we backtracked to the start of the detour and turned the opposite way off the highway. However, this did not make the task of moving forward any easier. The rain did not discriminate at all between the sides of the highway and the “puddlakes” on the correct side were only conquered with an exhausting combination of tow ropes, luck, and getting comically muddy.

An example of the damage to cleanliness a bog in Kazakhstan can do 
By this point we had been driving almost constantly for 3 days, and with the schedule looming over our consciences and the difficulty of the roads multiplying our stress to uncomfortable levels, we decided to take a break. After one last long day of driving, we finally arrived in Astana and treated ourselves to a hotel (though it only cost about $6 per person). The prospect of showers alone were worth that much to us, considering they were our first since leaving Trabzon, Turkey. We slept in, had a good breakfast, and ran some quick errands in the city before driving towards Pavlodar and the border back into Russia.

Getting some fruit in an alley in Astana
We arrived just before the border at around 8 PM, and after cooking ourselves some dinner (the first time in the trip we elected to use the camping stoves), we decided to get through the border that night, and continue our epic push streak through the night to get to Barnaul by the following morning, which would put us back on our original schedule despite the best efforts of the ferry, Russian police, and Kazakh potholes. In all, we crossed Kazakhstan in about 90 hours over 5 days (rendering the bureaucracy of registering paradoxically unnecessary), a pace that most teams we met afterward reeled at (the average we heard was between 7 and 9 days).

Part VI : Fun with Ferries and Feds

Hello world! It has been a long time since The (Bare) Bear Boxers have been able to properly update you on the adventures of the 2012 Mongol Rally, and quite adventurous it has surely been.

At the last regular post, we were on our way to a ferry in Trabzon, Turkey bound for Sochi, Russia. Now, anyone who has had the pleasure of frequenting public transportation knows that simply getting from A to B can be quite the adventure. This does not even begin to describe the ferry we signed up for. Aside from the entirely incorrect website that listed the wrong days, times, and prices for the ferry, the departure time told to various groups of travelers for THE SAME FERRY was completely different. Fortunately, none of the times turned out to be correct and instead of 6:00 PM like we were told, it was going on 8:30 PM by the time we were beckoned onto the boat with our cars and several other Mongol Rally teams bold enough to join in the adventure.

Some of the other teams daring enough to cross the Black Sea via a somewhat buoyant ferry. 

The ferry itself was nice enough, with airplane-style seating and a galley that served simple hot meals for a reasonable price. We had been told by the ferry operator (a boisterous, animated Russian individual who would have been right at home in a James Bond film) that the trip across the Black Sea would take 15 hours. In keeping with the previous times we were quoted, this one turned out to be a woeful underestimation. Instead of an 11:30 AM arrival the following day, it was more like 1:30 PM. And this was well before we were actually allowed to disembark with our cars.

When at last foot passengers were allowed to leave, Nick and Alex stayed behind to fill out the tedious Russian paperwork in duplicate before getting hurried off the ferry and into Russian customs which had no more paperwork, but made up for it with plenty of bureaucracy. All told, it was 4:00 PM by the time our temporary hosts were pleased with our papers and vehicles, and said vehicles were insured on Russian roads (a feat that would have been nearly impossible if not for an extremely generous fellow traveler who offered to translate for us). Roughly 4 hours later than we had hoped, and smack-dab in the middle of rush hour in a rapidly modernizing and growing port city, we began our journey to Kazakhstan.

At this point it should be noted that although Russia is by no means a developing country, they have not yet embraced the warm, benevolent techno-dictators at Google and shared their highly complex and poorly signed road system with them. This meant we were forced to rely on static maps and intuition (which we lacked entirely), and we could not figure out which of the Sochi ports we had arrived at. After blundering about Sochi for half an hour or so, we finally found the highway we wanted, and having read a healthy amount of less than positive anecdotes from the internet on traveling in Russia, we decided to book it for Astrakhan and the Kazakhstan border as fast as 1000 cubic centimeters would allow.

We made it to Tuops as it was getting dark and decided that we would much rather take our chances car camping well outside the city than finding somewhere to sleep within it as night set in. Our first choice at a spot turned out to be less than ideal. After pulling a ways off the road and starting to settle down for the night, we realized that the building directly near us was not the pleasant lumber mill it first appeared to be. We never knew for sure exactly what it was, but there were barbed fences, lots of lights, barking dogs, and plenty of Russian flags, so we decided to continue on a bit down the road just in case it was exactly what we feared. As luck would have it, not 5 minutes away was a nice pull-off shielded by a large dirt pile. We quickly went to sleep and resolved to get up at sunrise to continue our blitz to Astrakhan and the Kazakh border.

In the US, getting stopped by the police is maybe a yearly occurrence. The next day alone in Russia we were stopped at least half a dozen times. Most seemed to just check our passports, registration, and insurance. A few appreciated the signatures on the Perodua and even added to them, but soon enough we fell victim to the legendary police corruption we had read so much about.

While driving through Astrakhan, we needed to make a quick cash stop at an ATM before crossing the border. Finding one was easy, but finding a way out of the city again turned out to be much harder. While navigating back to the main highway, we took a wrong turn. Michael quickly made a U-turn, a maneuver we had seen countless locals execute, but as the police were able to immediately discern, we were not locals. A police officer immediately flagged Michael down and, much to our distress, he was instructed into the passenger seat of a nearby cop car. Thankfully, Nick and Byron in the Perodua had been following at enough of a distance that they did not make the same “mistake”.

From the vantage point of the spectators, the situation was getting very real very quickly. We were searching the maps for the nearest police station so we could follow Michael to what we could only assume would be Russian jail. It was stressful to say the least. Thankfully that was not the case, though not for lack of trying. When at last Michael emerged from the police cruiser, he walked quickly over to the Getz and simply said “I have two minutes to give that officer 3000 rubles (about $100), or I'm going to jail for 4 months”. Apparently the initial “fine” was $200 (asked for in USD, the trademark of a bribe), and when Michael tried to tell him that he didn't have that much, the officer thought he was being a hard negotiator and asked him to write down what he thought a fair payoff would be. Michael wrote down all the US money he had: $8. This led to further argument wherein they settled on the 3000 rubles we ended up paying.

We had never been more relieved to have just gotten cash. We paid the “fine” for the “illegal u-turn” and were almost literally breathing a sigh of relief when we saw another police officer get into the Perodua with Nick and have him drive off. When we asked the remaining policemen what was going on, they indicated to us that Nick was simply being shown a legal way around the block to get back to the rest of us. We took that as good news. It was a lie.

What Nick's new passenger was actually doing was trying to extort us further, though neither Nick nor the Perodua were doing anything remotely unlawful, that is, until this other officer was instructing him to. After being told to drive the wrong way down a one-way street and break several other traffic laws, Nick and the policemen were pulled over by yet more cops. The officer in the passenger's seat flashed his badge and was arguing with his compatriots when a group of very drunk Kazakh gentlemen walked by, got wind of what was going on, and proceeded to hassle the cops about hassling Nick. In the chaos, Nick was told to drive off and finally directed back to us. Keep in mind that the entire time, the cop was badgering Nick for “presents for his girlfriend” in broken english, to which Nick responded with a heroic bout of ignorance that frustrated him past the point of caring.

With ample amounts of time and money wasted on that encounter, we drove off, restocked on cash, DIDIN'T take a wrong turn, and finally exited Astrakhan heading towards the Kazakhstan border, which was about an hour away. That meant we had an hour to further psyche ourselves out about the border crossing, which we had both read and been told might be an even more harrowing experience than a police stop with plenty of militarized guards and general hatred towards Americans.

Thankfully, that turned out not to be true at all. Not only was the Russian border easy, but the guard who was sent to inspect our car had done the Mongol Rally himself! He spent most of the time he was supposed to be combing over our bags showing us pictures of the car he used and other MR vehicles he had cleared in the previous week. After a cursory glance inside the car and a quick stamp of the passport, we were officially out of Russia. It was equally simple and friendly to get into Kazakhstan. In fact, the hardest part about the whole border by far was the road we hit as soon as we entered Kazakhstan. And we use the term “road” generously. The swath of what at one time could have been pavement was two lanes wide. However, at any given point, there was no more than half a lane' s worth of intact tarmac, and it was never in line with the previous bit. In short, it was a car's worst nightmare. This was not helped by the fact that, thanks to our police encounter, it was 1:00 AM and very, very dark. We quickly decided to stop early in the first small village we came to and wait until morning to tackle the rest of the “road” to Atyrau.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

We made it!

We've made it to the finish line! Currently recovering from the previous night's celebration (and preparing for tonight's). Still working on all of our blog posts, hopefully we'll have them posted soon, along with some pictures. Thanks to everyone for the support!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

An Impromptu Update

We're alive! Currently in Arvaikeer, Mongolia, about 500 km from our final stop with Seymour and the Black Widow. The cars have held up to our mistakes mostly intact, and we've got paved road between us and the finish line. We've been a bit disconnected lately, our last internet connection was in Russia. We have a bunch of blogs posts in the works, and we'll be posting them when we get to Ulaanbaatar. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Part V: Eastern European Vacation!

After leaving Vienna, we booked it out of Austria, through Hungary and into Romania. Hungary has some beautiful scenery, but don't concentrate on it too long because the drivers are insane, (although less insane than those in Romania, and a lot less insane than those in Turkey). For example, we managed to see two overturned semi trucks in our two days exploring Hungary.

After leaving the main highway to get to a campsite, we were immediately surprised to find an area full of vineyards. Our campsite was at the base of a range of hills covered in them. We would later find that the grapes grown in Romania are commonly imported to Italy to be sold as Italian wine!

Cornel was the first Romanian we met. He ran the campsite we stayed at for the night, and was very inviting and generous. He also followed the male Romanian tradition of never wearing a shirt, a custom we could get used to. There were also plenty of stray dogs to pet (and then wash your hands thoroughly)!

As we were setting up, another team doing the rally came into the campsite! They were supporting Save the Children, and were named Carlos, Juan and Alex (originally from Columbia, but living in Miami). They weren't officially doing the rally through the Adventurists, they've gone rogue. They emailed the Mongolian embassy and found that importing the car might not be as difficult as it seemed, and managed to get all of their visas completed without The Visa Machine. If they manage to work their way through the bureaucracy unaided we'll definitely look into this option if any of us plan a second rally.


After a night in Romania we booked it for Bulgaria. Every country has a “Vignette” or a road tax, and as we head east, they seem to get less and less official. Austria and Hungary had an official looking sticker, Romania had a stamped receipt, and Bulgaria just gave us a couple pieces of printed out paper. By the end of the trip we might be getting handed a handwritten note.

Exploring Bulgaria
We entered Bulgaria at Ruse, which happened to have an extremely nice hostel, “The English Guest House”. They had showers, clean restrooms, and were very close to a historic Soviet-era town square. At the hostel, we met a German man named Armin, and his two children, Juno and Aaron. They were taking their beat up car on one last adventure through Europe. They had dinner with us in the square, and we had a great conversation about the differences between the US and Germany, each mostly arguing the merits of the other's country as it turned out. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side of the border.


The next day was spent driving to Istanbul. Bulgaria had some great scenery, with some beautiful rivers and hills, but the scenery was overshadowed by the ninja-esque moves pulled off by the Bulgarian drivers. The scenery changed to rolling farmland as we entered Turkey, and as we went south the temperature kept rising. Turkish driving also seems to have the boldness of Romania, combined with the speed of the Nurburgring, but as we would find out later, the driving would be easy compared to the urban warzone that is Istanbul.

Stray cat inspecting our Vignette outside of Bada Bing Hostel
We entered Istanbul fairly late, but early enough that we still had enough light to see the vastness of the city. The streets were just as we expected: a vast maze of organically planned streets, suicidal pedestrians, and homicidal taxi drivers. We managed to get to our hostel unscathed, and vowed to never drive again until we were leaving Istanbul!

A man named Mustafa ran Bada Bing Hostel, a fantastic place located just between the historic district and a great place for exploring at night, in addition to an amazing rooftop bar. There were great showers, bathrooms nicer than any hostel we’d been to, and most importantly, great company.

After unpacking the car, we headed straight to the rooftop bar for a much needed beer, and quickly met some of the great people staying there. A man named Jacob had been exploring Europe for months, and was from San Francisco. A few girls from Holland named Yris, Anette, and Renatta were exploring Europe by train for a few weeks, something difficult for Americans to do without an expensive plane ticket.


Michael photographing The Blue Mosque in front of Ayasofya
Michael, Alex, Thomas and Byron on a bridge in Istanbul
The next day was spent exploring Istanbul. We took a trolly to the Blue Mosque, an enormous and ornate structure built about 500 years ago in a futile attempt to overshadow the adjacent mosque, the Ayasofya (or Hagia Sophia). The Ayasofya was built about 1500 (yes, 1500) years ago, and while not as pristine as the Blue Mosque, is more impressive due to its historical significance and the enormous scale of the structure. Afterward we explored the Grand Bazaar, an enormous shopping district, where searching through the shops for a unique trinket is complicated by the millions of items imported from China, and fighting your way through pushy shop owners to a bathroom is a battle.

After escaping the Bazaar maze, we managed to make it to a bridge linking two sides of Istanbul. Under the bridge there are some restaurants with world class fish food, which we completely ignored in favor of some cold beers. After recovering at the hostel for a bit, we headed to the Istanbul night district, which is sort of like Pearl Street but much larger and more crowded. It's a strange combination of shops that have been there for a hundred years, trendy new coffee shops, and vogue fashion stores.


The following day we had to say goodbye to Joyce, who needed to leave our trip before we encountered and countries requiring visas. She took a shuttle to the airport, and we fought our way out of Istanbul and into Eastern Turkey.

The temperature seemed to keep rising as we left Istanbul; the folks in the Perodua were able to see the tire marks of the Getz imprinted into the asphalt, due to the melting tar. As we approached the coast, the temperature mercifully dropped, and we finally got to our campsite for the night in Sinop. We weren’t able to find any English-speakers to explain the rules to the campsite to us, but we did find a man who spoke German. Surprisingly, Thomas’ rudimentary German skills have proven somewhat useful in Turkey. Our campsite was totally free, although we had to deal with some cows suspiciously surrounding the campsite.


Turns out the cows were mostly talk, leaving just a bit of poop on the corner of Michael and Thomas' tent. After a quick cleaning, we were off to the local black sand beach, where we did some diving into the black sea from a concrete pier, and threw a Frisbee around in the water until we were thoroughly sunburnt. It was, perhaps, the best morning we’ve had on the entire trip.
Michael looking annoyed before cleaning up cow poop

After procrastinating for as long as we could, we left for another seafront city called Ordu. It's difficult to find campsites in Turkish, and what we thought was a campsite was actually a recreational facility. Luckily there was an employee setting up for a family picnic. He called the owner of the facility, and we were given permission to camp on the site!

The family that gave us great food and a better story
As we were setting up our tents for the evening, a group of friends and family showed up for a picnic and invited us to join them. Turkey is mostly Muslim, and we’re currently in the month of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar, which involves fasting between sunrise and sunset (we’ve been hearing calls to prayer over the city megaphones 5 times a day since we got to Turkey). This group had come for an evening feast after fasting all day, so they brought an incredible amount of food and shared it all with us. One of the women was from Germany and spoke some English (NAME). We’ve been completely blown away by the hospitality people have shown us on this trip, and this night was one of the best. We had stuffed peppers, pasta salad, bread, melon, fanta, and tea. They were using an amazing contraption to brew their tea which is shaped like a large jug and can only be described as a tea furnace. Hot embers are loaded into the bottom of the jug-thing, and heat the water and tea which sit above. The whole thing has a chimney on top which constantly emits large quantities of smoke and fire. The tea was absolutely delicious, although some of us still have burned tongues. After the first round of food, we had corn cooked on the hot embers left from the campfire. We had a great time eating, talking, laughing, and dancing. We even learned some Turkish! Now we can all say “Thank you”, count to ten, and ask for a beer, so we should be more or less functional for the rest of our stay in Turkey.


We left Ordu in the morning and headed out to Trabzon. When we arrived, we found that driving in Trabzon is about as difficult as in Istanbul. Not because of the crazy drivers, but because of the crazy roads. The city is a maze of one-way roads and hills steep enough the stall our cars. After determining that our google map of Trabzon was taking us the wrong way down several one-way roads, we finally pulled over to ask for directions to our hotel. The first guy we found spoke English and offered to lead us directly to our hotel with his car! This turned out to be a life-saver, as we realized we would never have found it on our own. One more point for Turkish hospitality!

Our hotel was called the Nurotel. After checking in, we went out to the city square and had another delicious meal of rice, lamb kebab, chicken, eggplant, veggies, and rice pudding. We had to look around for awhile before finding a restaurant which was open before sundown (Ramadan). We spent the rest of the evening doing laundry in the sink and watching TV shows downloaded by Byron. It was a good way to relax and recharge.


We woke up, had breakfast, and took a walk to the docks to figure out ferry tickets to Sochi. We found the ticket office without trouble. There was a man standing outside who immediately saw that we were tourists and came out to us asking if we were going to Sochi. Taking care of ferry tickets in the morning proved to be a good idea since the process ended up being fairly complicated, mostly because they didn’t accept credit cards. We spent about an hour walking around town trying to find a working ATM. Our plan was for one person to withdraw cash and cover everyone, but we found that none of us could withdraw a large amount of cash, so we all ended up withdrawing smaller amounts and paying together.

On the way back from the ticket office we passed a hotel with a Mongol Rally car outside. We’re not alone! Their team name appears to be “Genghis Khan’s East India Company”. We left a note for them in the lobby of their hotel, hoping to hang out with them later.

We retired once again to the hotel to catch up on more laundry and blogging, and also to finish the last of our produce and meat foods before heading across the Russian border. Our Lonely Planet guide to Russia turns out to be fairly unhelpful when it comes to food restrictions at the border, so we figured better safe than sorry.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Part IV B : Team Praha


With Thomas, Michael and Byron on their way to Wien (Vienna), Alex, Nick and Joyce stayed behind to enjoy the Czech capital of Praha (Prague). We checked in and settled down at the Chili Hostel, a raucous and lively dwelling located in the center of the city very close to the Vltava River. However, a long day of cooped-up driving and an acute lack of belly-fullness led us almost immediately back out to the streets in search of dinner, which we had no trouble reading. After strolling by a few places closeby and inspecting the menus, we eventually settled on some delicious thai food that looked reasonably priced by US standards. We quickly discovered that, not for a lack of quality, the Czech Republic is rather less expensive than the US. Our “reasonably priced” thai meal turned out to be a rather large feast in a rather fancy restaurant.

With a new found abundance of belly-fullness and a temperate evening at hand, we then decided to explore the Old Town section of Prague. From the restaurant we meandered along the river to the famous Charles Bridge. It was an odd mix of fascinating and annoying. Fascinating in that the bridge has numerous historical sculptures and significance, annoying in that it is a tourist hot spot and therefore set upon by hosts of pushy merchants and their gimmicky wares, even at night. Unfortunately, most of the interesting activities across the bridge were closed for the evening so we ventured back to explore Old Town Square.

Even in the late evening and night, Old Town was brimming with life and energy. Huge crowds flocking across the open square and spilling into the narrow streets beyond. Along one of these streets was a small Absinthe house that caught our eyes. Having never tried it before, we were all game for a taste and asked the bartender to recommend three can't-miss Absinthe experiences, which she did admirably, including one that was fermented with a giant beetle of some sort (Alex chose to try that one). Even ordering Absinthe is an experience. Because the real stuff is at least 70% ABV, it is set on fire along with a sugar cube suspended by a slotted spoon. The burning sugar is occasionally dipped into the burning alcohol until it changes from pale green to deep amber and the flames are suffocated. Then, you alternate sips of the alcohol and water to bring out the complex flavors (like opening a scotch). For the record, the beetle Absinthe was the team favorite.

After we finished our respective drinks (with much sharing, of course) and on Rally-veteran Bert's recommendation, we had a mind to check out Propaganda Bar. As it so happened, the Absinthe bartender used to work there and, after giving us a look of surprise when we told her that was our next destination, she gave us characteristically European directions. That is to say, they were relative rather than absolute. Armed with nothing more than a vague list of proximal landmarks and a buzz from fermented beetle juice, we set out to track it down. This proved to be an ultimately unsuccessful quest. Despite numerous exploratory wanderings and questioning more than a few locals (all of whom had never heard of the place), we acquiesced to defeat and began the lengthy, but pleasant, walk back to the hostel. Along the way we hopped a few fences (to avoid some particularly rowdy locals) and took a detour to a basement bar for a couple of local beers.


The next day began in fits and starts. After getting up early to re-up the parking meter (parking in Prague is somewhat of a hassle as 90% of the spots available are for residents only and tow trucks are only too happy to enforce that fact), Joyce and Nick decided to get breakfast at another of Rally-vet Bert's short-list locations: The Globe. Alex, in the midst of his characteristically comatose sleep cycle, tacitly decided to sleep in.

Run by self-described “ex-patriots”, The Globe is a coffeehouse/restaurant/bookstore that is particularly friendly to American travelers (not that Prague isn't in general), and provided the perfect location to adjust Joyce's return flights to accommodate the previous delays in the UK.

With everyone well rested and readjusted, Team Prague set out for a full day of sightseeing. After fording the river of tourist on the Charles Bridge again, the first stop was the St. Nicholas Cathedral (at Nick's request). Although this is not the most famous building in Prague, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful and ornate places anyone on Team Prague had ever seen. It was almost hard to gauge how intricate the inside of the building was because the intricacy was so dense. Gold and bronze statues, carved marble, and masterful woodwork covered every surface of the interior. Needless to say, many pictures were taken. To top it off, there was a gold-plated Porsche parked right outside the church as well.

After the splendor of the cathedral, we set off towards Prague Castle. Relative to the buildings around it, the size of the castle is second only to the number of Gothic spines that adorned its roof (it would feel right at home next to a giant porcupine). Unfortunately, the full castle experience was uncharacteristically expensive, so we opted for the free walking tour of the main room and its stunning stained glass windows that appear dark and dull from the outside, but positively glow with every color inside.

With eyes sore from boggling and legs even more sore from all the walking we returned to the hostel, but not before stopping off at yet another Bert-spot (and his favorite at that): a donor kebabish. Although Google seems to have no record of this place, we are 95% sure it was not a dream or some hunger-induced hallucination. This was by far the best donor any of us had ever had, and was high in the running for best food ever. It really was that good.

A few food comas and some internet research later, we decided to further explore the Czech beer scene. Although the Czech style of beer is nothing new, it is arguably the finest example of its breed. Primarily pilsners (a style invented in Plzen, CZ), the fresh local brews completely break from the dullness of their mass-market American counterparts while somehow undercutting the price (0.5L beers averaged about $1.50). This is a very welcome state of affairs for a night of bar-hopping. Thanks to the previous research, we even got to experience Propaganda Bar (apparently there were two places with that name and we were actually recommended to the much less sketchy one). With Prague successfully painted red (though most of the city is already that colorful anyways), we called it a night and prepared for the drive to Vienna the next day to meet up with Thomas, Michael and Byron.


The next day started with some good news: Team Wien had decided to go on a hike, which gave Team Praha some unexpected, but welcome, time to do some general shopping, stock up on groceries, and visit the (hopefully, thanks to this blog) legendary donor kebabish once more before hitting the road to Vienna. It should be noted that this was no mean feat since both people with modern navigation devices were already in Vienna. We had to do this one old school. That sucked.

Leaving Prague was challenging but doable, and the highways between the cities were as easily navigable as the interstates we are used to. Vienna, however, is another story. An unfortunate combination of poor signage, labyrinthine one-way streets, and a serious case of internet-enabled techno-coddling left us hopelessly lost in the Austrian capital. After several double-backs and misguided guesses, we were sitting at a stoplight discussing our next move when, through the open window, a pair of Bosnian truck drivers couldn't help but overhear our predicament. They offered to help and we pulled over to plumb their comparatively infinite knowledge of Vienna for directions to the hostel. In a matter of minutes, we were pulling up to the hostel, checked in, and set about reuniting with Byron, Michael, and Thomas that evening.

Stay tuned for the next update!

Part IV A, Team Wien

We woke up early in Vienna and had Austrian “Geld Kugeln” cereal (or “Gold Balls”, coincidentally also Tom’s new nickname) for breakfast. We started the day by taking the car to Midas to get it inspected. Katie and Mandi were extremely helpful and did most of the speaking to the mechanics for us. What took them a few minutes might have taken us an hour to translate. The mechanics found that the front left wheel was dented, presumably from driving into the ditch in England. We got it repaired and purchased a full-size replacement tire (which we hopefully won’t need).
After retrieving the car, we took Rick Steve’s walking tour of central Vienna past many of the top sites, including the Opera house and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Most importantly, we visited a subway bathroom next to the Opera House which played Opera music to you as you did your business. We deviated slightly from Rick's tour at Katie’s suggestion to visit the oldest church in Vienna from circa 1100 and to visit Cafe Hawelka, a typical Viennese cafe with excellent coffee, fantastic apricot cake, mediocre topfenstrudel, and famously poor service. The walls are lined with art given to the shop by poor local artists in exchange for caffeine. We found time to do some shopping for camera equipment, ridiculous Freud-esque sunglasses, and extra underwear for the trip ahead. This was also a great time to stroll through Vienna with our new absurd glasses, feeling like true Austrian locals. We had a great homemade dinner of eggs, salad, and pretzels with Katie and Mandi, then took a short stroll through the film festival in front of City Hall. Strangely, the only thing showing was an American acapella group, and combined with some beer and our absurd glasses we were having an amazing, albeit random, experience in Vienna. The following day, team Wien (Byron, Michael, Thomas, and Katie) decided to take a hike in the Vienna woods or “Wiener Wald” which surround Vienna. We took a tram to the outskirts of Vienna and took a long hike along the path which alternated between residential areas and dirt paths. The ground was pretty muddy and we saw lots of slugs. It was actually a little nerve-racking trying not to step on them. Viennese hiking routes have a lot of pubs and restaurants which pop up in the middle of the hike, a concept definitely good enough to be stolen by the US and claimed as its own. It seems like you’re in the middle of nowhere for a while and then you randomly find a pub or wine garden. We stopped our hike at a wine garden or “Heuriger” which overlooked Vienna from the top of a hill. We stayed for a few hours (time really flew by, we were having such a good time) and had lots of excellent wine, cheese spreads, and apple strudel. We even sang some songs with the locals, to the disapproval of the employees.
That night, Team Praha (Prague) and team Wien (Vienna) reunited at the Team Prague’s hostel. Team Prahe met two guys from Bosnia (Faya I and Faya II) who were helpful in finding the hostel, so we all decided to go out to a bar and have a drink with them. The following day was spent exploring the city. Team Praha explored the city while Team Wien slept in (recovering from the previous day), but we all met up after to go to the Vienna Treasury. This museum houses many of the historical relics collected and commissioned by the Austrian royalty over its centuries of power. There were jewel encrusted crowns, every conceivable depiction of Jesus, ancient finely crafted clothing, along with hundreds of other priceless pieces. After the treasury, we decided to go to a local brewery, with great beer and better food. The following day we had to leave Vienna for Romania after a depressing goodbye to our amazing hosts Katie and Mandi. Vienna was a great town to see, but like very city we've visited, we left with the impression that there was much more to see and do. Unfortunately, this trip isn't a vacation, it's a journey!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Video Prologue: Getting to London

We've finished our first video for the Mongol Rally! It covers up until the Mongol Rally. We'll be creating more of these as we go along! Make sure to subscribe!

Friday, July 20, 2012


We rushed to Dover Tuesday morning for our noon ferry to France. We were anxious to escape the island and start moving east into continental Europe. We had some time before our ferry so we did some speed tourism at Dover castle and the White Cliffs, which are both stunning. The cliffs had grazing horses to complement the picturesque landscape. The castle itself is too large and the history too dense to be appreciated in the time we had. After some quick pictures we dashed (literally ran) to our cars so that we could have some more margin for the ferry to France.

White Cliffs in Dover

We made it with time to spare, and after a painless two hour cruise, we escaped to mainland Europe. We met an extremely nice English couple named Clyde and Julia that actually volunteered to have us follow them to Belgium, since they were going the same direction. We wouldn't even need to navigate! It was extremely nice of them; they even corrected a wrong turn for us after we got onto the freeway in the wrong direction. Thanks again guys!

We left France fairly quickly, and after a quick beer in Belgium, moved on to Germany where we attempted to find a campsite in the dark near our goal of Cochem.   At night, everything seems like a sketchy place to sleep. Every footprint in the mud is the freshly laid track of an axe wielding drug dealer. We hastily found a lit parking lot, and hoped that we wouldn't be confronted by the cops or the locals.

As it turned out, the concerns of the previous night were baseless; the parking lot was actually adjacent to a small suburban development. We were more likely to run into thugs in Superior, Colorado than at our campsite. Besides an angry dog, we got out of the town without being confronted and managed to escape to one of our primary German destinations, Burg Eltz.

Burg Eltz

We did not quite know what to expect, but after a pleasant short hike through though the woods we took a corner and saw this amazing castle in the middle of an isolated German valley. Based on the dissimilar architecture it was clear that the castle was built up over time. The structure had a fascinating history, at one point it was under siege for 5 years (long enough for the intruders to build a permanent fort on top of one of the surrounding hills). The collection of artifacts was stunning as well. We even had a chance to get some good German food and beer from the on-site restaurant!

After leaving Burg Eltz, we set to work on the Perodua's exhaust in the parking lot. It's been contacting the right rear shock, the bumper, as well as a suspension strut mount. We solved most of the problems by cutting off some of the bumper with Byron’s multi-tool, securing the exhaust away from the shock with some wire, and wrapping the contact area with some aluminum tape. Hopefully this will last 10,000 miles! A nice German/American family also stopped by to check out the car and ask some questions while we were doing the repair, the kids even signed the car! We're going to try to take some pictures at random places so that they can see their names move across the continent.

The team at the Nurburgring
After the castle adventure, we set upon fulfilling Byron's automotive fantasy of driving on the Nurburgring. This is a 13 mile track, and is classified as a Gernan highway, which allows anyone to take their car onto the track and drive it as fast as they're able, whether it be a Porsche 911 GT3RS, or in our case, a 2006 Perodua Kelisa with a 3 cylinder 54 hp engine, with 4 people in it. We were, by far, the slowest car on the track, but I think we absolutely had the most fun. Everyone in the car was calling out passing cars, relaying information, and chanting that the highest priority was getting the car to Mongolia. It was a team effort that makes us all the more confident that we're ready for the challenges ahead!

The Carousel

Thursday was one of our best days yet, we woke up clean (ish) after our recent showers, and booked it for Prague after packing up. Prague is a beautiful city, built on a river in the Czech Republic. Just as we found some illegal parking near the hostel, a guy rides his bike up to us on the street and says that he did the rally in 2009! This is the third person we've randomly run into that has done the rally in the past. His name is Burt, and he provided several recommendations for food and drinks in the surrounding area, as well as recommendations for what to see in Prague. He quickly realized during the rally that he wasn't going to be able to return to his past life in Virginia, and has been travelling the world ever since. 

Unfortunately, we decided to get the Getz to Vienna a few days early so that the wobble that popped up after the crash into the ditch could be inspected, so Michael,  Byron, and Tom all left Prague a bit early to get this done. Nick, Joyce and Alex would stay in Prague until Saturday, and then we'd meet up in Vienna so that we could convoy down to Turkey. It's a risk separating, but we decided this would be the best way to fix the car and let everyone who really wanted to see Prague not have to miss out.

It turned out that the drive through the Southern Czech Republic and Northern Austria is a beautiful drive, with sunflower fields, wheat farms, small picturesque lakes and rivers, and an abundance of interesting architecture. We stopped the car a few times to take pictures and video because the landscape was so gorgeous.

Taking a break from driving in the Czech Republic

Vienna's architecture is stunning, every building seems to have its own character and identity, but at the same time each is fitting with the overall style of the town itself. The three of us stayed with Tom's sister Katie and her husband Mandi, who were extremely welcoming and inviting, giving us an opportunity to wash our clothes and recharge (physically, mentally, and electrically). 

Stay tuned for an update from the Prague contingent!