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!

Part II: Parts, Plans, and Proper Documentation

We woke up the next morning surrounded by goats, some so close to Michael and Tom's tent that they could probably reach out and touch them. It was also drizzling annoyingly. More annoyingly was the fact that, due to some constructional confusion, Byron and Alex's tent was very damp, especially all of Alex's stuff. Waking up cold and wet is a huge demotivator, so it was lucky we had some warm showers nearby. After fiddling with the Perodua's makeshift roof rack with the goal of avoiding a repeat jailbreak, we went off to finish some errands.

We quickly found an auto parts shop called Camberley Auto Factors, which gave us a great discount, and a few more stickers for the car. Our second sponsorship! We also stopped by a carpet store to grab some carpet fragments, which seem useless now, but in the deserts of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, we think we'll be able to use them for getting out of deep sand or mud. Our next stop was a dollar store (well, a “Pound Land”) to grab some simple gifts for Mongolian kids. It's common in Mongolia to give out gifts when meeting new people, and according to Tony, the Mongol Rally Guru himself, hitting it off with the kids pretty much seals the deal for an entire community (plus this whole trip is about charity, right?).

After getting some gifts and topping up on groceries we hunted down some wild English WiFi, an elusive creature to say the least, to refresh our route given the paperwork delays that we hoped were coming to an end that evening with the delivery of the Royal Mail. It just so happens that the closest free access point was at a local McDonalds. We frantically hatched a plan (that involved cutting some of the European part of the adventure) and called Spence hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.

VICTORY! The registration had gotten to his house! We were loudly celebrating in the streets of Salisbury. He had even already driven to the nearest train station. We blitzed through the streets, and had the registration in our hands. We thanks Spence a thousand times, he signed our car, something we've been doing with people we meet, and quickly arranged accommodations for the night near Dover, the port of call for car ferries in southeast England. But, before we took off to the coast we had to say one last goodbye to our mentor and friend Tony. We took notice of his love of whiskey at the pub and surprised him with a small bottle of Bell's as a thank-you gift for all his guidance and material support. He signed the car, we punched in the directions to our temporary Dover-based domicile, and set off with all deliberate haste. We were finally on our way!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Part I, An Awkward Beginning

Waking up at 6:30 did not go as well as we had hoped. Everyone slept through their alarms until around 8:30, which forced us to blitz out of the hotel around 9:30 to get the Goodwood Racing Circuit by 10:00 for the Festival of Slow! We estimated that we would show up about an hour late, including extra time for traffic and getting lost.

However, it seems that an event as large and intentionally disorganized as the Mongol Rally has a way of spreading its mayhem to the surrounding area. About 15 miles from Goodwood, we were on track to be there at around 10:45, only 45 minutes after the start, but going quickly on the “right” side of the road (as the Brits claim) isn't our strong suit, so we had quite a line of cars developing behind us. In the spirit of diplomacy we decided to pull over to let everyone pass.

That didn't go well either.

No sooner had the folks in the Kelisa suggested a pull-over than we found what looked like a nice roadside dirt nook. As it turns out, it was actually a small cliff in disguise. The Getz bottomed out on the shoulder, lurching violently off the road at about 40mph and into the fresh mud (that provided very little stopping power) and sending Michael, Thomas, Alex, and the car sliding down the side of the road and into the bushes. With a steep slope, deep mud, and a woefully underpowered engine (at least for this job), we were stuck. Unharmed, but stuck. And more bad news came when we tried to dig the car out; the wheels weren't spinning when the engine revved. Alex, Nick, and Tom stayed with the Getz to continue the excavation and damage assessment while Byron, Joyce and Michael drove to the nearby town to find a tow truck.
A short while later we were found by a team of former Rally-goers on their way from Goodwood where they were seeing off some friends doing the Rally this year and, more importantly, their big, burly, V-8 Range Rover and 25-ton tow line. In no time flat we were pulled free and, to our relief and amazement, the Getz started right up and drove with no issues whatsoever, aside from a healthy layer of mud on the underside and wounded pride.

After that debacle we finally got to Goodwood at around 1:00 PM, along with a hurricane-esque rainstorm. This didn't prevent any of the planned antics for the event. In fact, it probably made some of them more fun. The rest of the teams had decked out their cars with spare tires, roof racks, tool chests, car wraps, roof horses, bathtubs and themselves with insane and wacky costumes (the most interesting we saw was a full-body red spandex suit with lobster-claw oven mitts...Lobsterman!). We didn't have the time to get that all ready, so our cars were pretty sparse. We made do with the time we had, getting the Mongol Rally stickers on, putting up the colors (in our case, a pirate flag and a CU flag), and mentally prepared for the slowest lap of the Goodwood racetrack... in the world, but possibly the most fun. The car horns were deafening, the antics absurd, and the entire experience wonderfully surreal.
We had a bit of bad news directly after the rally. After calling Spence, we found out that the registration did not arrive, meaning we'd have to wait at least until Monday to escape the rain-soaked island. Instead of heading East with the rest of the teams, we decided to head West towards Shaftesbury, where we would wait for the Perodua's registration. Along the way was Stonehenge. THE Stonehenge; a 5000 year old monument created, from what most historians can discern, for no reason whatsoever. It's was another surreal experience. In our heads we imagined it being in the middle of nowhere on a mighty mountain in the middle of a thunderstorm. In reality, it's in a little field along a highway and quite a few people see it every day on their commute. But that made our visit no less fantastic or interesting.
After steeping ourselves in mysterious historical goodness, we needed to find ourselves a place to stay for the night, as we had not anticipated having to stay for the weekend before we left. As luck had it, there happened to be a campsite nearby with space available. At the campsite happened to be the greatest reason for getting delayed in England; our new friend Tony. Turns out he did the rally last year in an enormous fire truck with a few of his friends, and his stories kept us entertained the entire night. While a lot of what he said made us worried for what was to come (border guards, thieves, bribes, AK47s...) his stories made us even more excited for the adventure to start. He did everything from getting in bar fights with the Russian military, to partying in Ulaanbaatar. His biggest take away from his journey was the people he encountered and their general attitude of helpfulness and kindness. He even went as far as to say that the Rally restored his faith in humanity. We had a great night getting some pizza and beer with Tony at a local pub.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Prologue, Part II : Planes, trains, and automobiles

Hello again, Rally fans!

In order to make up for weeks of lost communication, we have decided to bombard your email, RSS feeds, and lives in general with updates on the pointless minutia and excruciating details of our travels.

Last post found Nick, Byron, and Alex setting off for, and haphazardly arriving in, the UK. This post focuses on the rest of the team (Michael, Thomas, and Joyce) following in our bureaucratic footsteps and the adventure to the north to acquire our second car, the Perodua Kelisa (we've never heard of it either).

To that end, we dropped Nick off at Hethrow to meet up with our other three team members and guide them to the campsite. It was therefore up to Byron and Alex to navigate the north (no easy task) and guide both cars, without navigators, back to the campsite. This was easier said than done, however, as there are some rather striking differences between English and American road systems. After a crash course in what the snowboarding crowd might call "goofy" driving, these differences manifested as the M1 (equivalent to an interstate highway), was completely closed for several miles due to a routine car crash (the term "nanny state" comes to mind). As a result, Byron and Alex were stuck in a massive traffic jam and forced to take side roads (along with half of England) that piled two extra hours onto the four hour trip from Horsley to Leeds.

After getting to the owners (late, again), we got all of our paperwork (still need to pick up registration at the DVLA, and tax the car, more on that later) and inspected our Malaysian mystery vehicle. The car worked great, besides the stolen radio, tampered passenger door lock, and the broken 12V port.

As a matter of practicality, we asked the owner of the trade lot, Amanda Dyson, where to find a good local car parts shop (it seemed only natural that she might know). Not only did she recommend one, but she gave us a ride there and secured the car traders discount (about 25%) for us on a bunch of parts and things we'll need for the trip like air filters, oil filters, and fan belts, but also random odds and ends that various flavors of Euro-government deem necessary to safely operate a motor vehicle; this includes GB sticker (since the car is originally British), high visibility jackets (some countries require these WHILE DRIVING....?), spare bulb sets, and more. Practically the only thing not required by the EU is a kitchen sink (though Amanda did say she had to remove one from a car she sold earlier in the day, so maybe that's on the horizon). If you ever get the opportunity and are in the market for a quality vehicle at an unbeatable price, please look up Amanda at Trade Cars Cleckheaton. Shameless plugging for our new friends is now over!

With the cars in hand, we aimed due south and set to returning to our campsite. The Getz is a 4-cylinder 1.1L car with a 45 L (10 gal) fuel tank, but the Kelisa is only 3-cylinder, 1.0L with a 9 gallon tank (which was partly empty at the pickup). As a result, the Kelisa needed a refill partway back to the site. Unfortunately, just after filling up, the check engine light came on! We frantically dove off to the shoulder of the M1 and checked every bodily fluid of the Kelisa, but it seemed like everything was working properly. We decide to set off, with the Kelisa in the lead in case it need to stop again. This is where the day gets interesting.

While frantically watching the engine temperature and the dash, night fell and the rain started. And not just any rain; fog-generating, bone-soaking, wettest-summer-on-British-record rain. Then, as both cars pulled up behind a slow-moving lorry (18-wheeler), Alex decided to pass it (or “Steve” as we are calling it). Unfortunately, Byron got stuck behind the truck as other cars had the same idea. On the other side of the truck, Alex slowed down to let Byron catch up, but due to the rain (and a considerable amount of speed), Byron rocketed past Alex in the Getz without him seeing and the two cars (with absolutely no form of communication, mind you) were separated.

As far as we can tell, the next part of the story goes something like this: in a show of uncanny cerebral synchronicity reserved for conjoined twins with a mutual penchant in carnival guessing games, both Alex and Byron slowed down to let the other catch up, believing their wingman to be lagging. After several minutes of being passed by strangers, both sped up to reestablish visual contact only to find empty road and puddles for miles in front of them. Thanks to several speed camera-enforced miles and ever-increasing weather, rendezvous proved impossible. As the front-runner (and man with the directions, it should be added), Byron successfully found his way back to the campsite first. The rest of the team had arrived hours earlier, having taken a 120 pound (yes, 120 GBP) taxi ride from the airport and several hours at a local pub, seeing as the Getz held most of the gear. But, calamity! Alex wasn't there! Realizing that he must have pulled ahead, Byron valiantly returned to the turn in for the campground, which, in true British fashion, is nearly invisible and completely unsigned so it's easy to miss.

After about 10 minutes of waiting, Alex drove by with a half dozen angry locals 'queued' behind him. He wasn't dead! Byron gave chase, and guided him into the campsite. Luckily he was navigator when we were driving the night before, so he managed to find his way back unassisted, being the navigational ninja that he is.

With all members finally accounted for in Jolly Old England, we made some crucial introductions (yes, some of us hadn't actually met in person yet), outlined the next days tasks, and went promptly comatose in our respective dwellings; a tent pitched before the torrential rain for Michael and Thomas, and the cars for Nick, Joyce, Alex, and Byron. See you on the morrow for more exciting Mongol Rally action!

Miles driven since last update : 415
Total miles driven : 489
Places visited : London, Horsley, Leeds
Tickets : 0
Average fuel economy : 41.8 mpg
Curbs mounted due to lack of familiarity with left-hand driving : 2

PS : Sorry about the lack of pictures, but the stress of left-handed driving and lack of excess hands made it rather difficult to take any pictures on the trip. Consider this an IOU redeemable at the next post!

Prologue, Part 1 : Passports, Bureaucracy, and Brits, Oh My!

Greetings from the Old Empire to all fans, followers, and donors!

We apologize profusely for the lack of updates since our automotive purchases, but things have been hectic to say the least! Stories of the pre-trip logistics are best left for personal conversations, or possibly an addendum to the book of Revelations, so we will skip ahead to the first day of the trip itself.

After Byron and Nick spent a great night in NYC (podcast can be found here), and Alex took his (cheapskate) red-eye flight and a lovely visit with some friends in Brooklyn the following morning, the first wave of The Bear/Bare Boxers were set to converge on JFK for the two-legged flight to London..

Nick and Byron managed to glide swiftly and gently through the city, ticketing, and security minus with rush-hour subway shenanigans. They were about to get onto the plane to another layover in Iceland, but 20 minutes before boarding they were called to he desk at the gate with some bad news. Alex had left his passport with a baggage attendant. At this point it seems prudent to mention that Alex elected not to bring his cell phone on the trip. However, the was not the primary issue. Apparently, and this is a general warning to all London-bound travelers, US passport holders are required to show proof of exit from the UK before they can be issued a ticket into the country. This was unbeknownst to any of us, and our travel service sites failed to mention anything about it. This presented a particularly complex problem for us because, although we were planning on leaving the country, we had no proof because we BOUGHT the cars and the registration documents were at the UK address the cars were residing at (as required by the laws of the country). Quite the catch 22. Eventually, we were able to convince them that it was good enough to have flights out of Mongolia as long as we have proof of departure from the UK at the UK customs office. After a bit of Google-fu and other internet wizardry by Joyce we had ferry reservations to France and all was well.

Unfortunately, wrestling with this calamity put Alex well past the deadline for his scheduled flight. Fortunately, Icelandair is AWESOME and, after he retrieved his passport, rebooked him on an identical flight later that night (at no charge) that allowed him to keep his connection to London and meet Byron and Nick in the airport in Reykjavik, and we were back to a full crew!

Flights to Iceland, though long and far between, were uneventful. However, the layover between Iceland and London was made merry by fellow US travelers afflicted by a gratuitous lack of information and a fellow US Mongol Rally team (the name of which we don't know, but the members are Matt and Patrick from Brooklyn, NY).

Nick catching several hard-earned Z's in Spence's driveway in Shaftesbury while Byron tests the car.
Then, after 7 hours of dicking around in the London Underground, King's Cross station, and Waterloo station we made an 11th-hour Skype call from our departing train to coordinate a pick up with the owners of our first car, the Hyundai Getz. The car looked great! No major issues.

The Getz at the  first "camp" site in Horsely (30 min SW of London).
After a crash-course in British driving from the previous owners, a healthy dose of American ignorance and several failures of navigating the “anything goes” British road system, we finally made it to our campsite...8 hours after the office closed. We decided to sleep in the car, which is surprisingly comfortable, but that may have been the scant 5 or so hours of sleep in the 40 or so it took to get from the US to London. Further more, British “camping” is about as rugged as a Motel 6. Hot water, showers, and a pub within walking distance are par for the course. The closest American analogue is tailgating, but with a distinct lack of barbeque and fun.

That concludes the Prologue, Part I of our Mongol Rally adventure. Stay tuned for more!

Here is a list of fun facts that we will try to update/add to as often as possible:

Miles driven since last update : 74
Total miles driven : 74
Places visited : London, Shaftesbury, Horsely
Tickets : 0
Average fuel economy : 43 mpg
Frantic last-minute skype calls made : 1

PS : despite all the hullabaloo made by the Icelandair ticket mongers, we sailed through UK customs without so much as a peep regarding our exit strategy. Thanks Big Brother...ahem, DHS.