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EPISODE 13: The Vauxhall Encore

August 24, 2016

Hold on, that is not quite all she wrote.

The Vauxhall was resurrected 28 hours after she was pronounced deceased. She coughed for air, gulped for oil and roared (possible hyperbole) to life with the sound that only an Agila is capable of. I had forgotten the magnitude of genius that resides in the mechanics in Asia. I had written her off. It took at least 17 of those precious 28 hours just to get the parts from Tashkent, which some guy drove all the way there and back to get for us. They then tried to charge $750USD instead of the agreed $400USD, so Lane and Nick spent a few hours just sitting in the car at the shop with the keys in the ignition until the mechanic was forced to accept the $400USD because otherwise, he couldn’t close the shop and none of his employees could go home. 

The rollercoaster we’d been riding began to climb from the rock bottom low that our dead engine let it slide to, and it kept climbing until the air got thin, the oxygen got low, the altitude cracked 4,655m and Lane vomited. That’s what happens on rollercoasters. More on that later.

We left Bukhara with our friends, Team French in Normandy (those saints that towed us 200km) to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The mosques are covered in patterned tiles, all blue and beige. We walked for what seemed like an eternity fuelled only by Cokes and ice cream, the boys sniffing about for a McDonald’s I knew wouldn’t exist. It was easy to tell they missed home. Every conversation in the car revolved around home: what's the first thing you're going to eat when you get home. What's the first thing you're going to do when you get home. When I get home I'm... 

If either Abby or Kelsey reads this, please know your boyfriends missed you very much. They missed food nearly as much as they missed you. I got to hear exactly what they were going to buy from Perry's (wtf is Perry's?!) about sixty thousand times. 

Our goal for the next day was Dushanbe, Tajikistan, which should have been fairly straight forward, but there’s always something. We wasted a few too many hours trying to find US Dollars (unsuccessful) –a task that seems much more difficult over here than it should be- and finally got the cars rolling out of Samarkand at 11:30AM. Our two cars rolled along through desert-like hills through all the checkpoints in Uzbekistan. Check points are these incredibly inefficient time-killing shacks where we need to stop and have our passport information manually logged into a big book that I doubt anyone ever looks at again. I might as well have signed, “Steph was here” on each of them and had the same effect.

The sky seemed to cloud up as we approached Tajikistan, an early warning sign that mountains are coming. The soft hills turned into rolling foothills and the colours shifted away from the flat beige of the desert. Mud shacks covered the hills in the small villages and donkeys, horses and goats speckled the empty landscape. French in Normandy’s engine began to get a bit hot, which led us to a shuddering halt every half hour or so to douse everything in water.

When we arrived at the border of Tajikistan it was 11:30PM, dark and quiet. We weren’t sure if the border was open at that time and the line up of zero cars didn’t look promising. The gate was closed and there were no lights save for a few naked lightbulbs dangling on wires from a few men playing cards and drinking chai. Nevertheless, we had to try. We approached the padlocked gate with caution and in turn, the men playing cards approached us. It was a tricky little game they played. They understood just enough English to know what we wanted, but not enough that we could tell if they truly were avoiding answering our direct questions on purpose or because they were confused by them.

“Border. Tajikistan. Open?”
Yes, yes!
“OK… we go through the gate?”
Puzzled stares, confused shrugs.
“You can open the gate?”
Yes, yes!
“OK… we go through the gate?” we all mimicked driving motions heading Tajikistan-direction.
Passport! Passport!

And none of us would give up our passports to men in casual clothes that were drinking chai and playing cards by the gate on the Uzbek side of the border, shockingly enough. I held out mine without letting go so they could inspect it, and they didn’t seem that interested in the information on it or even trying to hold it. They just looked at the colours and asked, “Swiss?” over and over again before nodding in approval. They wanted us to drink chai with them. Always chai. There’s always something. We had to get that gate open: we were tired, we’d been driving all day, and Dushanbe was only 70km away on the other side and we knew the road there was smooth. So close, so far. After a few more rounds of charades we finally got them to open the gate for us. I still don’t understand if they were employees or were just trolling this gate with a padlock for entertainment value.

It turns out that exiting Uzbekistan is a lot harder than entering Uzbekistan. Upon entering, our bags were not searched and the car search was uneventful. Just a dog that sniffed around and looked bored. Exiting Uzbekistan was a whole other ballgame: your electronic files were searched along with your bags, along with the car, in fine detail. Did we guess that our iPhones, cameras and laptops would be filtered through? Probably not, considering that the boys definitely had some questionable photos on theirs, the kind that most boys do. I have three external hard drives and my laptop, none of which they found or looked through. They all went through the scanner. The boys weren’t as lucky. The guards had a grand old time looking at screenshots of Snapchats. The boys had a few drunk videos on there too – I believe the Uzbeks’ favourite was one where they decided that putting a slice of pizza on a treadmill and having it roll right into their mouths on the other side was a fantastically intelligent idea. But all those things on their phones were harmless – if those questionable photos were sent to you by someone, that’s perfectly OK in Uzbekistan.

The things you really, really wanted to avoid having electronic evidence of is pornography (especially gay pornography) and photos of anything military or government associated. The whole process took a long time. They found my mishmash of over-the-counter unlabeled drugs in my First Aid Kit and I got to try to explain what each colour of tablet was meant for. That took another 15 minutes. By the end they knew I was telling it true but kept insisting it was all Viagra, giggling to themselves. The lack of cars meant we were the only thing keeping them busy instead of waiting out the long hours of the night. We exited Uzbekistan with French in Normandy still having their van searched and drove to the Tajik entry gates. Our passports were stamped momentarily and we actually had to search for the customs guys to let our car through. No searches, no questions, welcome to Tajikistan! We figured it might be 20 minutes maximum before French in Normandy showed up. It was 1:00AM. All five of us were strapped into our seats, ready to roll. We fell asleep like that, covered in a mess of sleeping bags and seatbelts. I woke up at 2:40AM. French in Normandy had still not cleared the border. We made a guess: either the border had closed, or somehow they had been caught in No Man’s Land until the next day, or they had run into a visa issue. We drove into Dushanbe in a stupor, feeling like the worst convoy team for ditching, rang a hostel bell at 3:40AM and were snoring by 4:00AM, still with no news of what had become of our friends.

The next day we got a message from French in Normandy: they had cleared the border at 10:00AM. The Uzbek officials had found pornography on a laptop which almost sent one team member to jail. These three are some of the nicest people on this planet, and the story they told wasn’t one they deserved. Arguing at a border for 15 hours about pornography to get out of a country seemed unfair, but that’s what it took. They got through with no fines and no jail time, thankfully. The Green House Hostel in Dushanbe was inhabited by Ralliers. The entire lobby was full of people waiting for their cars to be fixed. It seems like all the cars started having major problems once everyone hit Turkmenistan. That’s where the roads really started going to shit. Everyone had a story. One team had left their vehicle on the side of the road in Turkmenistan, with the Mongol Rally stickers still on it. Their visas didn’t have enough time to get the car fixed, so they left it behind. 

 I’m not sure why they didn’t tow it out of the country, or put it on a truck. They didn’t even remove the license plates. They left behind everything they couldn’t carry. Another team was driving one of those antique cars and hit one deathly pothole and that was the end: it hit so hard, the headlights fell right off. They got towed over the shittiest roads in Turkmenistan to the Uzbek border for 7 hours to get their car and themselves out. More teams had the same issue that we did: blown head gasket.

But the best story I heard was this one:

Challenge to win 250GBP. Right all you cheating GPS scumbags. We had no map for Kyrgyz. We Maps.Me’d it [the free app that everyone uses, including us]. We ended up in a fucking mountain range with no fuel to turn back. We burnt our clutch out and Wilson would trudge forward no more. We’re out. After a 25 mile, 36 hour hike to 10,000 feet and back to 4,000 feet, sleeping in a rocky ditch in 5 degree mountain air with nothing but jackets, walking 8 miles through a desert and only avoiding utter dehydration thanks for our filter bottles… we made it to a farmer with a car to drive us to a taxi. Only time in our lives we thought we might not get out of something… as we hobble through the airport like two anal virgins, learn our lesson: Don’t use GPS. Ever. Listen to locals. Get lost. And to make things interesting, we donated our car to a nomad in the mountains. If you find the car, we forgot 19,300 rubles under the cup holder. Get the car. Get the rubles.

So you see? Our issues were child’s play. In comparison, we were running smoothly as it gets. Beaver Buddies were peachy. We departed Dushanbe alone (Team French in Normandy had left earlier in the day) toward the Pamir Highway. 

The Pamir Highway has been used for thousands of years as a supply route through Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Calling it a highway is generous; the terrain it navigates is rough. Understatement of the trip. Parts are paved, but a large portion isn’t. A large portion is more pothole, washboard and washed out bridges than actual road. The Pamirs are the little brothers of the Himalayas. I say that like they’re small… but relative to the Himalayas, all mountains are small. The Pamir Highway is the second highest road in the world, topping out at 4,655m. It is a mecca for ballsy cycle tourists and adventure motorcyclists. If you were a smart, prepared person, you’d do it on a dirt bike, a touring motorcycle, a touring bicycle, or a 4x4 vehicle. If you’re a moron, you take a Vauxhall Agila loaded with 5 people and all their belongings. 

The roads climbed and then degraded to rough gravel and construction zones. We flew by massive trucks on skinny roads. By the time night fell we were so close to Afghanistan that we could throw a rock and it would land in another country. The only thing that separates Afghanistan from Tajikistan is an angry looking gray river. We went through a checkpoint to be met with an Afghan general who was very excited to tell us that Afghanistan was right across the river. He kept on miming shooting RPGs and big guns. He had shrapnel dangling on a rope around his neck. I don’t want to know what that man has seen. It’s not recommended that you drive the Pamir Highway in the dark, but there were Tajik army men patrolling the road so we didn’t want to wild camp. Parts of the road got so sketchy I couldn’t look out the window, and much to the annoyance of everyone else in the vehicle, I’d just sit in the middle and cling on for dear life and make small little gasps every time the vehicle tilted toward the river. The road was narrow enough that only one vehicle could fit down it. The road was a straight drop into the river and the other side was a dirt cliff. Civil engineer that I am, I can tell everyone with the highest confidence that those slopes were not engineered. I would not sign off on those slopes. No sir. Trench inspection failed. I could see tension cracks all over the place, just waiting for an opportune moment to break free. Nick said cheerily, “At least it’s a soft landing!”

Drowning in the river between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is not the way I envision going. I thought about all the things I still wanted to do whenever I finally get home. Kind of like that flash of light before you die, but my flash of light was everything I had left undone.  

We arrived at a guesthouse to find French in Normandy, appalled that we had already caught up to them. The next day we all convoyed along the road, which seemed a lot better now that it was light out. French in Normandy’s springs were completely busted, so they were having a rough ride. Our rear right spring also gave in to the potholes, snapping and making horrendous noises every time we hit a bump. The backseat was a riot. Still we pushed on, waving to all the locals, Tajik and Afghani alike. Kids fell over themselves running toward the side of the road. Soccer games were halted mid-kick as they all headed towards the edge of the road, yelling and screaming in excitement. They all want high fives and candy. Tajik children take their high fives very seriously. One of them nearly took my entire arm off at 40 km/hr. The parallel road on the Afghanistan side of the river was far worse than the one we were on. I never saw a car on it, just donkeys and motorcycles. It was etched into the side of the cliff. 

They were blowing it up while we drove by. We were so close that a rock flew up and hit another team’s car, snapping the hold of their roof rack. But despite the crazy nature of the road, the views are out of this world. We climbed and climbed and climbed until we reached Khorog and tucked in for the night between the ground, a hammock and the cars.

From Khorog the road climbs into altitude-sickness area. It’s hard to know if you’re out of breath because you’re hanging out at 4,000m without acclimatizing, or if it has something to do with what you’re surrounded with: pure rugged nature. This area feels so remote and untouched that it’s truly a world away from home. We made our way up the first big pass and ended the day in Murghab, a cluster of shack-like buildings in what looked like an alpine plateau. Murghab is actually in a valley at about 3,800m (no rest for the oxygen deprived). Everyone seemed like they were doing alright – a few headaches, some achy stomachs and general fatigue. No one had thrown up yet, so I figured we were going to be fine.

At 6:00AM, Lane wandered into our room. I thought he was sleepwalking, because I am always the first one awake. The boys never wake up voluntarily before 8:00AM, and they certainly do not walk around at 6:00AM. But I was too asleep to find out why the sky must be falling. Lane was out of the room again before I’d become fully awake. Turns out Lane had been puking all night. We all frantically looked at the elevation profiles to see if we could go down. 

But valleys aren’t designed like that: we had to go up and we were going to go over the big one. We tentatively started driving and Lane did perfectly fine. The water bottles hissed air every time we opened them, pop fizzing far more than usual. My shampoo bottle exploded. The air cooled down to freezing. The Canadians got a little chilly. The toques were busted out. The fleece jackets were zipped up. It started hailing. It snowed lightly. It was difficult to wrap our heads around the fact that nearly four kilometres below us, the desert heat raged on. 

The Vauxhall did her job fine. More than fine, actually. She didn’t overheat once, and besides the broken spring, she had no hiccups. We had to get a couple running starts up the steeper slopes, but that was all. She spun the tires a few times, the brakes got smelly a few times, but she made it up to 4,655m in stellar fashion. 

Before long we were approaching the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan seems pretty slack about what they let into their country. The search was not a search. No bags were searched. No one needed visas. One team brought in a couple of mutt puppies they decided to temporarily adopt off the streets of Dushanbe. Kyrgyzstan didn't care. We exited Tajikistan and were stamped out and entered the biggest, longest, but most beautiful No Man’s Land I’ve ever seen. The mountains were red and green.

Shortly after we’d entered Kyrgyzstan and left the biggest of the Pamirs that we would see, we descended toward Sary-Tash as the light turned gold. Golden hour. I made the car stop at least 5 times. Yurts and horses were lit up yellow with a backdrop of pink, snow-covered mountains. While we were stopped, a girl ran up to our vehicle asking for gifts, so we gave her a Canada hackey sack. She didn’t seem to impressed with that and went to grab the bright yellow beach ball from the back. This beach ball’s name is Wally. Don’t ask me why the boys are so attached to it, but it came everywhere with us. I’ve got more than enough photos of “Wally” and the boys. Needless to say this Kyrgyz girl was shut down hard in her attempt at Wally and the car drove away from her quite quickly. All eight of us slept in a single room on mats and a few beds in Sary-Tash. To get to the "washroom" you had to exit the "hotel", cross the driveway, go through a squeaky metal gate, down a staircase made of rubber tires into the cow pen, pass the cows and enter the shack with the typical hole in the ground. Sary-Tash is tiny. Lots of horses, lots of sheep. And children run the gas pumps. 

From Sary-Tash it was an easy drive to Osh on smooth roads. The biggest speed bump was navigating through the herds of horses, cows and sheep that were being escorted down the road by Kyrgyz boys on horses. The boys probably weren’t older than 10 years old. Go take that herd of sheep across the mountains, kid. And they do. “Normal” is a stupid term. We’ descended to just over 1,000m in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, so everyone had adequate oxygen. The roads to Bishkek were well maintained but still went winding over mountains big enough to cause a few problems for anyone with a stuffed nose.

Bishkek was the end of the road for the boys and the Vauxhall. The car was imported legally into Kyrgyzstan (the cheapest place in Central Asia to do so) and they flew home. So no one actually made it to Mongolia, but the attempt was pretty valiant. Mongolia came to an agreement with The Adventurists that removed the requirement for the crazy cash deposit at the border, but by the time they’d come up with this solution, the boys were pretty tight on their schedule to make it there before their visas started pressing them to get out of Russia. But all that aside, it was obvious they were ready to go home. 

The Mongol Rally is not a “normal” (there’s that terrible word again) way to travel. It is not a normal way of backpacking. It was tiring for me, someone who is used to going full-travel-throttle all the time. This was the most exhausting thing I’ve done. The Mongol Rally is not for sissies. If you can’t handle the fact that you will sleep in your car, you will be hungry, you will be thirsty, you will get lost and you will be helpless at some point (probably all at the same time), the Rally is not for you. If you are not ready for long hours on crappy roads, if you’re not ready to be stuck in the dark in a country you only heard of a few months ago, completely illiterate with no phone and no way to contact anyone, the Rally is not for you. The stories that come out of this thing are ones you can tell over and over again. They are unique: how many of your friends can tell a story that begins, “So this one time, in Turkmenistan…”. Probably not very many. But those stories were earned; living these stories was no walk in the park. They are wonderful in hindsight, but while you’re stuck in no man’s land between borders it’s nothing but stressful.

At some point, all you’re going to want is pizza from your favourite joint, your own bed and fast wifi. At some point you will ask yourself: what were you thinking, signing up for this? That’s the whole point of the Rally –you sign up to suffer for amazing stories. Why else would you take a car that is sure to bust on some of the roughest, highest, most remote roads in the world? You do it because you know this isn’t going to be a story to forget. You remember that guy driving the 1959 rebuilt 3-wheeled vehicle with the 400cc motorcycle, no reverse? He made it to Mongolia – and he didn’t even cheat. He drove through Iran instead of ferrying across the Caspian. Never say a car can’t make it. You don’t know until you try it.

Good luck to the boys back in Canada. I hope your 48-56 hour flight schemes end in all the Perry’s and girlfriends and food you dreamt and yammered on and on about. might save you some pain. And to the Vauxhall: may she find loving new owners. She has no rear bumper and everything on it has been busted or bent, but she runs. May her new driver take her far and wide, and never doubt that that little Agila is capable of hitting Mongolia, if it ever did want to.

Cheers from a rooftop in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

EPISODE 12: The Uzbek Engine Fizzle

August 13, 2016

When I first announced I was going to take part in the Rally, I announced it like this: “If you want to be the first to know when we break down in the middle of Uzbekistan and I start crying, follow along on this website.” And now I can’t help wondering, did I jinx us by saying that?

We got going late out of Khiva. Wifi and unlimited access to social media after a week of deprivation will do that. We weren’t too worried since Bukhara wasn’t that far away and the word on the street, quite literally, was that the roads were pretty good.

50 km after we’d reached the main road it turned into the smoothest, nicest thing we’d rolled over since the best roads in Turkey. We were cruising. Perhaps we were cruising a little too fast. Perhaps the temperature gauge was not being paid enough attention. It’s a needy thing. 

Perhaps the needle had skyrocketed into the red zone, unnoticed. Oops. When we pulled over and lifted the hood the engine was smoking. It was desert in all directions, minimal traffic and blaring hot sun. There was another leak in the radiator hose (the first happened in Baku, Azerbaijan) – cause or effect of the engine overheating, we’re not too sure. Nick and Lane fixed up the leak in about 45 minutes and we all loaded into the car like, meh not such a big deal, let’s get this show on the road. 

The key turned. The starter chirped. And chirped and chirped… no bueno. There was no compression, the engine would not turn on. Now the desert looked a lot less friendly. I thought of the spider at the Door to Hell. This looked a lot more like a big deal. In due time our friends, Team French in Normandy, showed up and asked what was up. These people are the best. When we figured there was no fixing the car on the spot, they offered to tow us. But do you think we had a tow rope? Nah. French to the rescue once again: clothesline and bungee cords. Whatever it takes. Leave no Rallier behind.

We began the 200km tow job at about 4:00PM. The rope snapped. The knots snapped. The bungees snapped. They snapped once, twice, thrice… nine times. I tied bowline after bowline, reef knot after reef knot. I never would have never guessed that my sailing skills would ever be put to use in Uzbekistan. We pressed on into the night. We rolled the windows up so they wouldn’t be stuck down when the battery died. 

The hazard lights started to flicker. The radio lights looked sickly dim and shut off when we hit the brakes. Headlights off, dash lights off and finally, everything died and we rolled on in the dark. We made makeshift rear lights with flashlights and duct tape and when I saw car headlights in the rear view, I flashed a headlight out the window. More than a few trucks flicked their high beams on like, what the hell am I looking at?

By midnight Lane was falling asleep at the wheel and the rope was snapping every kilometer due to the potholes. We were 40-something kilometers out of Bukhara but at 10 kph, this seemed like an insurmountable distance. We pulled over and set up camp for the night. The stars over here are brighter than anywhere I’ve ever seen. Brighter than in the mountains in New Zealand. You can see the entire Milky Way from horizon to horizon. Our tow buddies treated us to dinner and peach schnapps and we all passed out amidst the dust and the trucks flying by.

In the morning our tow rope didn’t work any better. It snapped next to a truck stop and the locals decided our string, for lack of a better word, looked ridiculous. They went to work removing the passenger seatbelt in one of their trucks and then tying our two vehicles together. They wouldn’t take our money. They did take a lot of selfies with Julia and I though. The seatbelt was a world of improvement over the line we’d been using, the only downside being the distance between the two vehicles had shrunk to about 6 feet. We bumped along at 35kph and finally made it into Bukhara to find an auto shop.

I love going to mechanics in Asia because I always have full confidence that if there is any way to fix a problem, they can do it. In North America, safety standards and all sorts of regulations stand in the way of a mechanic saying, “Well, I don’t really have this part but I’ve got a little disc of metal, a grinder and a drill so I think I can make this work. Just give me two hours!” But here, no one wants to throw things away. If it can be fixed, it gets fixed. It took about 3 minutes for the mechanic to announce our engine was “finished”. Water was the culprit. But after about 30 minutes of what-ifs and can-we’s and can-you’s, and holy-shit-we’re-screwed’s he changed his mind. The mechanics here are no strangers to the Mongol Rally cars and it seems like they are pretty into it. When we said that if the car was dead, the only options we now had were to import it (thousands of dollars) and scrap it, or try to find a new engine (difficult and thousands of dollars) they all seemed to get a little more determined to find a way to make it work. Just get this car to run for another 2,000km. That’s it, we’ll push it onto the train at the end. For $400 USD and 4 days, he said it would be fixed. For sure.

The boys invested and the car was then towed to another auto shop. By the time we’d got back from lunch, maximum 40 minutes, the engine had already been dropped out of the car and 3 people were fiddling with it. The mechanic we had talked to said he was going to drive to Tashkent that day to pick up the parts he needed (400 miles, 8 hours, one way). He was sad he had to go, because if he wasn’t driving there he wanted us to stay at his house with him.

It would appear that many Mongol Rally cars are having serious problems just after Turkmenistan. Engines overheating, axles bending, head gaskets warping, oil leaking madly…there are more than a few teams held up in Bukhara because of major car problems. People have started hitching rides with the cars that are still going: car space is getting tighter. There are Facebook messages flying: “Hey guys, I will be on the Tajik-side of the Uzbek/Denau border tomorrow around 12:00PM. I have a ride there but I don’t have a ride after (car’s out for a bit, Mark’s fixing her). Headed to Dushanbe, let me know if you have space for one. Can pay in beers, gas and dad jokes!”

There is also a new twist that affects all teams on the Rally: Mongolia doesn’t want us. At all. Mongolia hasn’t wanted us for years. The finish line used to be in Mongolia, but I suppose dealing with 300 shitty vehicles and trying to load them on trains is exhausting and they hated it, so the finish line was moved north into Russia. Now, without any warning, Mongolia’s border control is demanding a cash deposit equal to the amount of money it would take to import the vehicle into the country. You supposedly get it back when you exit the country. This only applies to Rally cars as they are “a special case”. The amount of money it takes to import a car into Mongolia depends on the car model and the year, however is usually between $3,000-6,000 USD. What team has that kind of cash? Better question: who would carry that much in US Dollars on them? Even better question: is less than a week in Mongolia worth that? My vote would be no, and this is exactly what most other teams are thinking. The Adventurists are working hard to find a solution, but so far they have gotten… nowhere.

Right now the Mongol Rally doesn’t seem like it will include Mongolia. People have looked at other options – you can take trains and buses in without taking the car. Maybe they should start calling it the Russian Rally.

My Uzbek visa expires on August 17th, a remnant of my former team’s schedule. In four days it would be August 16th and it would take a day to drive to the border. It becomes apparent that I am now an official hitchhiker since I cannot afford to wait for 4 days for the car fix. Did I think the Rally would turn out this way? Nope. But that’s the nature of the Rally: you press on until there are no other options. You keep going, no matter what. Or in my case, you keep going until you make it to Almaty. I don’t really know how to get there yet.

Whether I see these four boys again before I fly out of Kazakhstan is not certain. Nothing is certain. I would like to thank them profusely for taking me in without question in a completely awkward situation, for enduring all my whining and general exasperation in Turkmenistan (there is actually a list written on the ceiling of the car of things that I managed to complain about. It’s right next to the “Shit Aaron Does” list) and for allowing me to squeeze into their already overflowing vehicle. Without them I’m not sure I would have made it into the Stans at all. Without them my repertoire of poop jokes would be far smaller. It’s usually not easy to spend all day every day with anyone, even your closest of friends, so the fact that these guys did not leave me on the side of the road is frankly astonishing –a  demonstration of pure Canadian spirit. There are Rally teams who have left teammates on the side of the road without a glance back, so don’t think this wasn’t an acceptable option.

May the Agila rise again. May your beers be cold and plentiful and your doners cheap and delicious. May you get out of this desert heat and return to Canada’s glorious temperatures in one piece and with many unforgettable stories. And when you tell this story don’t forget to mention this old woman in the backseat, along for the pothole-ridden ride. I’ll be sure to tell the grandkids all about you when I get home… whenever that is. Stay greasy, my friends. Stay greasy.

Cheers from Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

EPISODE 11: Welcome to the Stans

August 11, 2016

We headed to the Turkmenistan Embassy in Baku to turn our Letters of Invitation into visas. We didn’t have any news of a ferry, so we decided that if we started the visas two days from then, there might be a ferry by that time. We guessed. We had no information to go off of, save for “there hasn’t been a ferry yet in the last 4 days”.  The Turkmenistan Embassy doesn’t really have a listed address and it doesn’t pop up on Google Maps. It’s located in a cranny of Baku down a small alley. We found it by asking other teams where it was. We knew we’d found it when we saw the armed guards. 

We’d heard it was only open on Mondays and Fridays, but we were attempting a Thursday because we didn’t have much better to do. The guards made a few phone calls and texts and then ushered us to the other side of the block, through a locked gate, up a tiny spiral staircase on the side of the building and into a plain room. There wasn’t anything there except a file cabinet, a couple of chairs, a printer and a computer. It looked like it was an unfurnished room in someone’s house. It needed a paint job. It didn’t look like any embassy I’d ever been to. No flags. No shiny countertops. No queues. No cameras staring at you.

We were the only people there, so the process was far less painful than we’d expected. The man there was very helpful and explained exactly how we needed to pay (a short trip to the bank, hand in a slip of paper and $55USD and come back with the receipt). Before an hour and a half had passed, we all had shiny new green Turkmenistan visas in our passports, valid for 5 days starting on August 6th. I was proud of it. The second strictest dictatorship in the world had just granted me access into their country.

We then headed for the ferry port to try to gain some knowledge on possible departure and heard a magical rumour: there is supposed to be a ferry tonight that is coming especially for us, from Turkmenistan. It has room for all of us stuck here! It’s supposed to be here at 10PM, we can board at 11PM and it’s a faster ferry! It will only take 10 hours. The combination of desperation, exasperation, frustration and small slivers of hope were thick in the air of that parking lot, floating above the 40+ Rally teams that had accumulated there over the past four days. Do you think this magical ferry rumour was too good to be true? You’d be right. We weren’t expecting anything to happen like they said it would, but we were in excellent shape considering our Turkmenistan visas wouldn’t even become valid until 10-12 hours after we landed on the other side, if the ferry left at 12:00AM on August 5th (which of course, wouldn’t happen). We headed back to our hotel to wait out the rest of the day in sub-par air conditioning. Spending 6 hours in a hotel room with 4 bored, sweaty, slightly hungry guys ends up in fart jokes, boys farting in my general direction, boys giggling at farting in my direction, and Lane shooting vodka, claiming, “I’m practicing. I suck at doing shots.”

While we were snooping about for information we met an awesome local named Rashad from the Azerbaijan 4x4 Club who was very interested in all these little crappy cars that had “Mongolia” plastered all over them. He signed our vehicle and gave us some awesome stickers and souvenirs from Baku, introduced us to his family and gave us his number in case we ran into any trouble while we were there or if we needed a translator. Besides the one-off of getting completed ripped off at a restaurant (we had a big fight with them over a salad, of all things), the people here were incredibly nice. Lane made friends by handing out cigarettes to neighbouring cars through the window at stoplights. It turned flat stares into grins and nods in no time. Restaurant owners and waitresses were excited to sign our car, writing “Good luck!” and “Welcome to Azerbaijan!” in Russian. We got thumbs up and big grins at donar shops.

We checked out of our hotel, reloaded on water and food and cleared the car through customs (a 30 second process where we said, “Yo, we’re ready to leave this country!) and they led us through the gate, pointing at all the other Rally teams like, you know the drill. Park over there and wait. Teams had dubbed this parking lot “Tarpistan” – it was an effort to find the humour in the fight to hide from the sun. 

We arrived in the parking lot at 8:00PM and knew that the only way the car could leave that parking lot was if it was loaded onto a ferry. 10:00PM came and went and so did 11:00PM. Rashad translated from a man who worked at the port that the ferry had arrived and was now unloading, but the expected departure time was now 12:00PM the next day. This was a huge downer for most teams, whose Turkmen visas were quickly running out of time, but it was an advantage for us (or so we thought at the time), because we weren’t sure if we’d be let onto the ferry with visas that started 48 hours ahead.

So began the parking lot party. It was probably the strangest situation I’d been in since… I don’t know. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a weirder event. Here were about 100 people from all over the world, trapped in this dirty parking lot in Baku, Azerbaijan of all places because their shitty cars were legally “out” of the country and could not re-enter. Some people had been camping in that parking lot for at least the last 3 nights. People were cooking dinners on cook stoves. Vodka was cracked open. The front seats of all vehicles were cranked back in preparation for more waiting. I have never slept in a more unexpected place (until the next night, of course): in my hammock, hung up between a silo and a tree underneath a “Restricted Area” sign. Aaron, Lane and Nick slept in the car in various states of uncomfortable positions and Kael fell asleep in the “ground hammock”. Others set up tents or simply blew up their sleeping mats and slept on the concrete. I woke up to truckers conversing in Russian and snapped wide awake when one of them decided that my silo ladder was the perfect place to do a few morning pull-ups. He was nice though – he gave me a wifi hotspot from his phone. I had no idea that would be the last time I’d be connected to the world for the next week.

Hopes were high the next morning; the news had not changed, there should be a ferry today. Things moved slowly as usual, but at 10:50AM we heard a call: “Assemble! Assemble!” and everyone rushed in. Information. Please. Please! A port official said in a light Russian accent, very sympathetically, “Guys, I know you are being here for… a very long time. But, uh, I have bad news. There is no ferry for 3, 4 days.” Dead silence. And then someone yelled from the back: “You’re lying!!” and his face split into a grin and said, “Yes! You all pack up now! Follow the bus to the passport control!”

We all ran, hearts fluttering, straps tightening, water bottles filling and liquor bottles tinkling into the garbage… but there turned out to be no rush at all. We were all slowly moved into a new parking lot beside the ferry to wait, and everyone had to go through passport control to exit Azerbaijan. Passport control was located in a Sea Can. We cleared it early, but we waited sticky, slightly hungover, crammed into our car and sitting on the docks, sweltering in this brand new parking lot, beside the mythical ferry, which turns out was actually real. People had issues: their Azerbaijan visas had expired –big fine- and their Turkmenistan visas only had 48 hours left (not realistically enough time to get out once they got in). As far as I know, everyone got on. I don’t really know the details on how much it cost them.

By this time I thought the main battle was over, but it had just begun. Once we had boarded the ferry, the doors to the car level were locked (no access to our food and water) and then we began the shockingly slow and inefficient process of buying ferry tickets on board. This was all done by pen and paper in US cash. They had to copy out the information of every single passport and match license plates and vehicle registrations to a list they took on the way in, which was completely erroneous to begin with since there were multiple lists made over the 4 days that Rally teams had camped out in the parking lot. It took another 5 hours. It was getting dark.  They kept everyone’s passports in a massive pile behind the desk. Very secure. The restaurant opened and soon they were serving soup – however they were making it to each order, so every order took 10 minutes, which led to nearly no one actually getting anything. We hadn’t eaten a meal in 24 hours. Lane and I lay totally still on the couches, sweating and trying to conserve energy. The fast had begun. They ran out of soup and started serving chicken and fries. Then they ran out of fries so they replaced it with rice and barbeque sauce. It took 3 hours to get food. I was lightheaded. Once all the Rally teams had purchased their tickets and car tickets, the locals were let onto the ferry. I’m not entirely sure why their luggage had to be lifted by a crane from the dock to the ferry instead of being carried on (let’s add an extra hour for that).

Meanwhile I’d realized that I was having a decent allergic reaction to whatever tiny bug had gone to town on me while I slept in my hammock the night before. If I had to guess, ants. I had 53 bites, all excruciatingly itchy and made worse by the heat and humidity inside the ferry. I was legitimately concerned, hypochondriac that I am. This was not the time to require medical attention. At 8:30PM I asked the port guy when he thought the ferry would leave and got a very satisfactory answer: “1, 2… 3 hours? I don’t know!” At midnight, we went to sleep. We still had not left the port. We had been on the ferry for 8 hours.

At 3:00AM I woke up soaked in my own sweat, dehydrated and itchy and prayed that we weren’t still tied to the dock. I checked my phone and we were 15km offshore, meaning we had probably left within the last 45 minutes. Educated guess? It took 15 hours to load the ferry and to get it underway. I will never, ever, ever again complain about BC Ferries. 

I stood outside on the dock watching Baku’s Flame Towers flicker in the distance as we headed into inky black nothingness ahead. I thought, well, the hard part is over, I suppose. That sucked but at least we’ve only got 10 hours left and then we’re good to go. I’m a fool.

People slept on the deck, in hammocks, on mattresses outside, on the couches, everywhere. It was the same long process to get food again the next morning, and still we could not access our cars, which had been all tied down and were located under a ramp blocked by semi trailers. If I had known I would be moving onto this ferry for a few days, I would have prepared myself a bit more. As it was, everyone had been wearing exactly the same thing for the last 48 hours and had sweat through it at least twice. In the morning the boys told me both of the men’s toilets were plugged, one urinal wasn’t working and someone had puked into one sink. There was no toilet paper to begin with so I started rationing mine.

After breakfast two ferry officials came and asked if we paid for our vehicle. Yes sir, yes we did. They wanted to see our receipt because apparently there was one vehicle that had not been paid for, however they had no idea whose vehicle it was or even, which license plate. There might have been a flaw in their ticket system, you see. It may have made more sense to purchase ferry tickets before boarding, and present them upon boarding. It may have made more sense to check each vehicle that left the ferry while unloading to see if they had receipts. Instead, their solution was to walk around and ask random people for their receipts with absolutely no system to check off who they had asked, since they did not take our license plate and they did not take our names once we had presented our receipt. Lane was asked twice if we’d paid for our car. Over here, if there is a more difficult way to do things, they’ll do it that way.

By 12:00PM we had still had not reached the Turkmenbashi port, and I was convinced that unloading the ferry and clearing customs would take 12 hours at the very least. The boys told me I was being negative, but in hindsight that was a very optimistic outlook. A whole new load of people were now under huge pressure to get out of Turkmenistan as soon as they got in. Probably 70% of the Ralliers on the ferry had visas for Turkmenistan that would expire in 36 hours or less and we hadn’t even landed in the country yet. The fastest way out of Turkmenistan if to flee directly north to Kazakhstan, however most Rally teams need visas to enter Kazakhstan and only have single entries. Entering Kazakhstan in an effort to avoid deportation out of Turkmenistan would mean giving up Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. No one had any idea if the Turkmenistan Embassy would allow them to buy more days to change their dates, or if they would just be sent straight back.

At 3:00PM, the engines shut off. Land was within sight, barely. We came to a halt and dropped the anchor. I assumed that this was standard procedure until the captain received some type of word that there was space for the ferry to dock. I expected perhaps a 6 hour delay. Again, I was told I had a negative outlook and again, in hindsight, 6 hours was way too optimistic. We received news that the ferry’s steering was having issues and we would resume our course at 5:00AM the next morning. The kitchen ran out of water. I guessed it was only a matter of time until we ran out of food. We managed to find our way down to our vehicle to refill water jugs out of our 25L reserves. I also picked up my camping gear and my hammock, because there was no way I was going to sweat out more water than I needed to by staying inside again that night. I ate every meal that was offered to me, stuffing in as much as I could, because by this time I had no faith I would ever get off this damned vessel. By now, people’s Turkmenistan visas would be expired by the time we reached the country.

I strapped my hammock inside of a Do Not Enter gate next to the lifeboats. There was no railing between me and the edge of the water. An Aussie guy strapped his hammock up a few meters away. I know people were jealous of our wicked spot. Honestly it was the best sleep I’d had in a few days and I woke up as the sun starting cooking me at 6:00AM. I peeked out of my cocoon and saw boats. Land. We had docked at the Turkmenbashi port. About an hour later there was a rumour that the passports were being handed back in a very official way. The ferry officials couldn’t really pronounce our English names, so they decided to hand over piles of passports to Ralliers who were just yelling out the names. You yelled back and jumped up and down when you heard yours, and then your passport got filtered through the crowd towards you. Organized chaos. You gathered your teams’ passports if you heard them. 

By 10:30AM the trucks were unloaded and all Rally teams drove off the ferry onto Turkmen soil and parked 20m from the water. We had just regained our passports from the random ferry pile, but now we were instructed to chuck them all in a sack that a man was holding, claiming he would call Ashgabat and give people visa extensions. Very secure. This man drove out of the port with our passports and we waited while the desert sun came up and started its daily baking process. Another hour after that we were escorted into another parking lot (this was getting boring), still without our passports.

Thus began Turkmenistan’s passport control, customs and insurance purchasing. The ferry had not provided breakfast to us, so we were hungry to begin with. There was no toilet on this side of the border. There was no food. Our water bottles had become so hot you could have brewed tea with it. We sweated in the sun, waiting for our passports. There was no word. By 12:00PM, they began to miraculously return in groups of 10 (with the same process – they were handed out through the Ralliers). When we got our passports back, nothing had been done to our visas. We didn’t actually need an extension so we weren’t too crushed, but why was the two hour delay necessary if nothing was done to anyone’s visas during that time? Once we had our visas in hand, we lined up for a window where we paid a $14USD cash tax for whatever, who knows. This line took a very long time. The woman behind the window was writing two receipts per person, excruciatingly slowly. After we cleared this window, we moved to a second queue to get our Entry stamps. This line took a very long time. After we cleared this window, we were instructed to get our bags from the car and bring them through customs. This line took a very long time. By now it was 2:00PM. We sat in the bag queue for eons. It barely moved. People were just sitting on the floor while five Turkmen officials on the other side tore apart bag after bag, one at a time. They went through First Aid kits, asked about every medication and went through all sorts of pockets. It seemed like the locals had it worse but whatever way you looked at it, they could have been doing it a whole lot faster. After we had cleared our bags through customs we had our passports checked for the billionth time that day we were confined to a waiting room. Everyone was confined in this room except for Aaron, the registered driver. In this room there were a few seats, but no toilet, no water and no food. No one knew how long we would be there for. Meanwhile, Aaron went through hell on the other side of the barricade trying to buy insurance. He went through a total of 7 queues and windows and had to pay $148 USD in cash for car insurance –he didn’t even have that on him so he had to borrow from another team until we realized oh shit, Aaron has no money. We tried desperately to explain to the guard that we needed to hand cash through the barricade. It took a good 6-7 minutes of charades, but we managed. The guard didn't seem pleased. After the insurance was bought, Aaron was taken out to the car and the car was searched thoroughly. He then drove the car around, we bought another ticket (not sure what that was for?) and we finally, finally drove into the country at 4:00PM. We were one of the first teams to make it through. Others were there until 7:00-8:00PM.

We had to make it to Ashgabat, which was at least an 8 hour drive away. The countryside was industrial plants, camels, shacks and desert. The road quality had plummeted. The potholes had come out to play. We still had not found food save for a few Cokes. We stopped at a café and got some very sub-par non-filling pizza and then trucked onwards. We arrived in Ashgabat at 1:30AM. It seems like Turkmenistan spends all of its cash on Ashgabat, and nothing on the rest of the country. The city was overdone. It was sparkly and white. Clean and orderly. It was a direct contrast to its surroundings, so it felt fake and controlled… which I think is what Turkmenistan is going for. Controlled, anyway. We searched desperately for a hotel but most of them were “full” or too expensive. We were not allowed more than two people per room. When we finally found one (overpriced), they expected US cash on the spot. We didn’t have any left after the insurance at the border. We let them keep our passports as leverage and said we could pay in the morning. The hotel looked nice on the outside and had a humongous interior… and tiny crappy little rooms. AC that barely worked, water pressure was nearly non-existent, and electricity that flickered on and off. No wifi, because hotels in Turkmenistan don’t do wifi. Who needs wifi when all social media sites and communication apps are blocked here? The next morning we slept until check-out and then went on an adventure to get US cash. It was a lot harder than we expected.

For one, you need your passport to withdraw any money. The hotel had most of our passports. That was problem number 1. The second problem, which was much bigger, was that banks do not exchange any currency and give back USD. They will exchange USD for another currency, but they don’t hand you USD. You cannot withdraw it out of an ATM. Turns out there is only one bank in the entire country that allows you to withdraw US cash, and they only do it off of Visa cards (oh joy for that hefty fee, can’t wait to look at it!). We found that bank 5 minutes before it closed for an hour, so achieved absolutely nothing. The bank building looked like all the rest: sparkly, shiny, embroidered with gold metal and white paint. I took a picture of it and was immediately assailed by a serious looking guard who made me go through my entire SIM card to show that I had deleted it. You can’t do anything in this country. We returned at 3:30PM and were told by people waiting in line that, no, you can’t withdraw US cash now. That’s only in the morning. We were royally screwed. We weren’t even allowed to pay for our hotel in local currency. No one likes to receive the Turkmenistan Manat. They hate their own currency and the US dollar is king. We refused to believe the bank wouldn’t give us money, so Aaron pulled a very not-Canadian move, desperate times desperate measures, and scooted up to the window in front of the whole line and asked, “US Dollars – withdrawal?”

The girl behind the desk was the same one from that morning. She was very pretty, but she was even prettier when she said Yes, US Dollars. Saved. It took another 45 minutes to get our money (it was a 3-window process coupled with passports and about 5 signatures) and we were off. 

We headed north out of that strange city, into the desert. By this point I had wanted out of the country since we hit the border, but there was one thing we had to see: The Door to Hell.

Aptly named, it’s a fiery pit in the middle of nowhere. You need to go off-road about 5km for it. We parked the Agila (she was in bad-ish shape) and took a jeep in with our camping gear. There were a few other Rally cars that made it all the way to the crater, but most of the teams there had also taken jeeps in. 

The Door to Hell looks a lot more sinister at night than it does in the daylight. The heat comes off it in huge gusts of hot wind and the gas makes the view behind it shimmer. There are different stories as to how it was formed some 40 years ago. One goes that they were drilling and this hole collapsed. One small spark was all it took for the whole thing to set fire and its been alight ever since. The other story is that they knew this pocket of gas existed and thought it was a hazard, so they lit it on fire thinking the gas would burn off… and it just didn’t. It was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen.

We camped a safe distance away from it. At 6:00AM the next morning I drowsily awoke –too little sleep the last few nights- and unzipped my tent fly. Unravelled the end of my dry bag holding my clothes only to find a huge, huge white spider literally hurl itself fat body into my tent. I jumped backwards, but there really isn’t far to run when you are trapped in the smallest of small one-man tents. I felt like my cat when she gets backed into a corner by a dog. The last time that happened, she shit herself. I’m not making that up. I wasn’t too far away from doing the same. I wanted to scrape the spidery terror out of the tent door, but every time I moved, it knew and it ran quickly. I just didn’t want it to run right at me. Luckily for me, I was hyperventilating, freaking out and crying so loudly that I woke up all the boys in the tent beside me and they came to check out what could possibly be such an ordeal at that hour in the morning. Lane found out first. He tried to kill it and tried doing it with every single soft thing he could find. First he tried using a water bottle with a hollowed out bottom. That did nothing but piss the spider off. I was still in the back of my tent panicking. Then he tried squishing it with my toiletry bag. Didn’t work. The stupid thing was invincible and angry. Finally, the sandal technique did the trick… it took a bit of weight though. I think I heard its exoskeleton crush into itself. Needless to say I was awake after that. I’d seen one of them on the ground the night before but didn’t think too much about it. The next day I asked another Rally team about the spiders. They had slept on the ground and woke up to one right next to their faces. They’d brought a local over and pointed at it and all the local did was make a slitting throat gesture coupled with a facial expression that read, “very bad”, before he quickly backed off. I asked another local about them later that day and he said, “If one bites you… you need to go to the hospital.” I still can’t find out exactly what their name is, but that’s enough information for me: stay away.

We drove towards the border of Uzbekistan, hoping to cross that evening. On the way we destroyed three tires (2 bent rims and one tire shredded). The boys’ back-up wheels were acquired at a scrap yard and aren’t the right size. They’re a bit big. They’d tested them when the car wasn’t loaded so fully (read: without me… I weigh a lot). We had to put both of the larger tires on the back since they are a different size than the others and when we did and started going there was an awful grinding sound from the wheel well. We all unloaded again to figure out where the wheel was grinding into the car. First culprit was the bumper, so that had to go. Lane and Nick removed the bumper and strapped it to the roof. We reloaded. Now the wheel only ground when we hit the tiniest of bumps (all the time). We unloaded. Nick and Lane started bending the wheel wells out. We reloaded and drove with slightly more success. We stopped twice more for some more well-bending action before we were comfortable attacking the potholes but by then we had become cautious: if we destroyed one of the back tires, we wouldn’t have anything to replace it with.

We met up with three other Rally teams by accident at a gas station (there aren’t a ton of gas stations so the chances are high) and convoyed with them to the border of Uzbekistan. Two other car in the convoy were also Agilas with spare tires, so we had back-up support in the case of another blow-out. The roads were atrocious. So much fine dust, sand and potholes that could eat the Agila for breakfast all came to the party. Our four vehicles bumped and wove towards Uzbekistan: let us out, let us out, let this road end. All of us were so covered in dust, dirt and sweat that paper towels came away from our faces brown after one swipe.

While the country itself is the strangest I’ve been in (mostly, strict and crazy), the locals are another story. They’re awesome. They all waved at us, honked at us, gave us thumbs-up and smiled. We stopped for drinks at a small shack and were gifted with a free watermelon from a little girl. We gave her a Canada badge and a Canada hackey sack. When we arrived at the border, they had closed. Yes, in this country you are not even allowed to leave when you want to. They had closed 20 minutes early. We had arrived 10 minutes after they closed. Disheartened and dirty, we all turned around to the nearest city, thankfully only 10km backtracking, and made for the only hotel. We don’t like Turkmen hotels. They’re overpriced and they suck. While we were in the hotel lobby deciding what rooms to get with all the rest of our convoy, it became apparent that the only hotel in town didn’t really have enough rooms for us all. Since they will not allow people to sleep on the floor, this was an issue. They will also not let anyone sleep in the car. A local listened to the whole conversation and then offered that 8 of us (EIGHT!) could sleep at his place for free.

Allow me to put this into perspective, not that this situation really needs it. I’ve Couchsurfed a decent amount in other countries. For those who don’t know Couchsurfing, it’s a website where travellers stay with locals for free. You have references and profiles and schedules, etc. etc. etc. It’s a well-established thing. I’ve also had locals offer me a place to sleep outside of Couchsurfing– mostly when I’m traveling by bicycle, but this offer topped them all. The largest number of people in one host’s place I have ever seen is 8, and that host had three spare rooms. This Turkmen man had two rooms in his entire place. When we got there he let us all shower (bucket and water!) and he and his sister gave us all local food. His sister and her friends wanted to take a bunch of selfies with me, so that happened. The seven boys got mats in one room. The man’s father slept there with them and tried to get them all to drink with him. I slept in the other room, sharing a bed with his sister. Special treatment... or maybe one girl sleeping on the floor with 9 men isn't appropriate in Turkmenistan. Our host slept on the floor by our feet. Nearly every inch of that place had a body sleeping on it. Honestly, this guy made our entire stay in Turkmenistan. I love people like him. They make the world go round.

He saw us off the next morning as we headed to the now-open Uzbek border. It was the last day that our Turkmen visas were valid so he had to get out. We were the first car at the border and the first one out. There was no line up and things moved a lot more quickly than the border getting in. All in, it took us 3 hours. One team got deported because they didn’t drive the route they said they were going to (they were trying to exit at the wrong border point). Border control instructed them to go to the exit point that they had stated they would go to, but it was a 3.5 day drive away and their Turkmen visas would expire before then. So they chose deportation. Apparently it was free. I don’t know if it will mean trouble for them getting into other countries like Russia… only time will tell.

We drove to Urgench, the first decent-sized city after the border, in hopes of getting our dire tire situation taken care of. We withdrew some local currency and laughed at how ridiculous it is. People need to carry around bricks of cash here because the denominations are so outrageous. $50 USD turns into a stack of notes that won’t fit in your pocket no matter how hard you try. While Lane and Kael waited at the bank for money, Nick, Aaron and I sought out a repair shop. We found tons of them but picked one with a bunch of tires in front of it. We mimed what we wanted to have done and they mimed, yes we can. Then a young kid got on a bicycle and rode away. Meanwhile another guy took a hammer out and beat our rims back into shape. The younger kid came back 10 minutes later with a tire. Within 20 minutes they had fixed 5 tires and given us a whole new one… for $30CAD. They signed our car and we took selfies with them and then we were off, once again. We picked up Kael and Lane and headed for Khiva.

We’d only heard of Khiva the day before from other teams. It wasn’t that far away, but after the past week we all agreed we could use a short day. And a shower. And wifi. And a connection that doesn’t block Facebook and WhatsApp. When we arrived we scouted out hotels. First we found a basic one for $12.50USD each. Then we accidentally ran into a 4-star hotel. They told us “$160USD for a double room” and we just walked away. Two minutes later a hotel employee came out and said, oh, we have a discount. With a little haggling, we got two twin rooms and a double room for $130USD. Pool and breakfast included.

I showered for probably an hour. I’ve gone some good no-showering stints during my travels. I did 12 days in Iceland and I was cycling every day. I did 6 days in New Zealand, hiking every day. But I can honestly say that I have never been so filthy as I was when I arrived in Khiva. The water looked like mud coming off me for about 5 minutes. I hand washed my dress in the sink and no matter how many times I rinsed it, the water still turned dirty.

Will I ever be clean?

Today we head east. Like always. Check out location here!

Cheers from Khiva, Uzbekistan.

EPISODE 10: The Baku Ferry Port - The Waiting Game

August 3, 2016

It took us 5 hours of waiting until we were ushered into the foot passenger line up to cross the border into Azerbaijan while Aaron stayed in the car to clear the vehicle through customs. It was sticky and hot outside. We'd gotten up between 5 and 5:30AM to get to the border early thinking we'd wait for only a couple hours to cross over. Wrong wrong wrong.

We didn't have any food with us save for a bag of candied peanuts that we bought at the border for 3 lari. They were tasty but they got old real quick. We wouldn't find food until 4:00PM and when we did it would be one of those places where you use charades and pointing to describe what you want.

When we threaded our way through the short line up to passport control, because who goes to Azerbaijan on vacation, I was met with a border guard. I handed my passport over and was interrogated:

“Where are you from?” (but I just handed you my passport!?)

“Are you from Switzerland?”

“Where are you going?”

I am doing a road trip.

“Where are you going after Baku?”

“Do you have a visa for Turkmenistan?”
I have a Letter of Invitation.

“Where are you getting your visa to Turkmenistan?”
At the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Baku.

“And how are you getting to Turkmenistan?”
I’m taking a ferry across the Caspian Sea.

As soon as I can get on one.

At this point he flipped through my passport and pointed out a few pages:

“Why do you have a Tajik visa?”
Because I am going to drive through Tajikistan.

Because I want to drive the Pamir Highway.

“Have you been to Kazakhstan?”
Well, not yet. I’m going there though.

“OK. Look at camera.”

After that he scanned my passport and half-heartedly tossed my passport back under the glass. I walked past the border official in full uniform behind him and went through a scanner and waited for the boys, who immediately told me they got through with absolutely no problem, a few smiles and handshakes and conversational oh-where-did-you-go-in-Turkey! The first thing I noticed on the other side of the border was that there were no women. None. There only seemed to be men outside. The few women that were in public were over 60 years old, covered in shawls, and sweeping up garbage around the cars. Men on the side of the road smoking cigarettes. Men selling melons. Men selling taxi rides. Men selling peaches. Men sitting on the curb doing nothing but observing. Men looking out of their cars.

We waited for another 30 minutes before Aaron rolled the car through the gate and we started the 6 hour drive to Baku across the entire country. The entire place was dust, scrub, low brick buildings, railroad tracks and a few power lines. When we got closer to Baku the air got thicker. It was 37 degrees and a little cozy in the car. Pipelines popped out of the ground. Construction sites materialized. Huge cranes stuck out of the ground like spikes. Prickly. Industrial sites were everywhere. It looks a lot like driving north of Fort McMurray, passing through the Syncrude site. It looks like whatever was scraped away, leaving ravaged sand and crumbling rock behind. It smelt like smoke. We could see the black wisps being carried across the sky like a smudge of oil. Flare stacks were alight in the distance.

It was a mean shock to learn that the Azerbaijan Manat is stronger than the Canadian dollar. Things aren’t cheap in this city. It’s a mix of old and new -skyscrapers rising out of the bricks. The Old Town is a quiet maze of alleys where shops sell Flying Carpets, pots and magnets.

Now begins the very fun part: the ferry across the Caspian Sea. To put it simply, there are no straight answers and no easy solutions. Many teams were issued only 3 days of car insurance at the border for Baku, so after 3 days, the car has to clear customs at the ferry port and after that, you can’t leave the port. Luckily we were issued 30 days (why, we have no idea really –luck of the draw) so on that front we’re OK. There are about 36 cars stuck in the ferry port right now waiting for the next ferry, and no one knows when that is. They are there simply because they can’t be anywhere else and that’s the only way to find out information. Many teams have their Turkmenistan visas already started and running out. Other teams have their Azerbaijan visas running out. People are getting desperate, looking up the fines to avoid deportation out of Turkmenistan (reportedly $400USD/person or get deported. If you get deported you may have trouble entering other countries – it’s like a black mark on your passport). 

There’s a list of cars and people who are apparently “in line” for the ferry and our names and vehicle are on that list… but no one really knows if the list is a hard rule or means anything at all (it probably doesn’t). No one really knows if you can get on the ferry if your Turkmenistan visa doesn’t start until 18 hours after that or not. Some people have opted to risk it a little more and get on the ferry with only the Letter of Invitation to Turkmenistan, which to be honest doesn’t look like anything official. It looks like scrap paper. They’re thinking is they can get the visa at the port in Turkmenbashi. No one is sure though, although that would be convenient. Our plan of attack: head to the Turkmenistan Embassy tomorrow and hope it opens (apparently the guy there will open it if there are enough people there… although how he knows how many people are there if he’s decided not to come in at all is completely beyond me). We will pick a starting visa day of August 6th so our transit visa to Turmenistan ends on August 10th. We then move the car into customs and out of Azerbaijan and we wait at the ferry terminal all day hoping for news of a ferry. No one normal takes this ferry. It’s primarily a cargo ferry. It wasn’t meant for us and it’s pretty clear there is no working system in place to accommodate the yearly rush of the Mongol Rally.

I don’t care. All I need is out before my Azeri visa expires and I’ll be fine. All we need is two days of validity left on the Turkmenistan visa. That will be enough to drive into Uzbekistan. All we need is just enough. We’re going to squeeze through, I hope.

Cheers from Baku, Azerbaijan.

EPISODE 9: The Georgian Team Shuffle

August 1, 2016

We saved a kitten in Cappadocia – a little baby girl. She ran out from the rocks while we were walking back to the campsite from “Love Valley” (please see pictures, it’s very self explanatory) and she followed us all the way there, mewling and crying the whole way. I bought her tuna and Aaron pulled all the burrs out of her fur while she purred furiously. She attacked that tuna and slept in the lounge room. I gave 10 lira to the owner to let her stay. I figured she’d be the campsite cat and all the tourists might feed her a bit. I don’t know if he pocketed it or not, but it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

We spent the latter half of the day in Cappadocia hanging out with Toon, a Dutch guy who’s riding his motorcycle from Amsterdam to Vietnam (that’s the way to properly do this thing). We went about the markets – the peaches in Turkey are the best I’ve ever had. I could live off them. We sought out the strange rock formations and tried to get our car down weird narrow back roads and up sandy slopes with varying degrees of success. 

The next morning we all got very tired and woke up at 3:30am to see the sun rise from a balloon. We’d wandered around town and haggled with all the companies to find the best price for 75 euro a person. The pilot went so low we skimmed tree branches and could nearly reach out and touch the rocks. I can’t imagine all the stuff we’d need to sign to do the same thing in North America. After we landed we headed back to the campsite, packed up and made towards the border of Georgia.

It didn’t work out very well; we entered Trabzon while the sun set and everything got dark. The coast was too developed to wild camp on so we ended up sleeping in the cars in a truck stop. Can’t say sleeping in the driver’s seat is my kind of thing. Could have been illegal. Maybe not. I don’t want to find out. After the worst sleep (can I even call it that?) in our car, we woke up at 5:00AM and drove to the border of Georgia like zombies. The line was massive, there was garbage everywhere and it was already hot outside. 

I have always said that if you want to see if two people are actually friends, you make them travel together. You put them in strenuous situations. Get them a little sleep deprived. Put them in a bit of a mess. See if they can problem solve together. See if they can find a solution together in this confusing world where you two are basically the equivalent of illiterate and mute. Unlike most other people, I don’t really have commitments (right now). If something isn’t making me happy, then I change it. I can swing from doing one thing to the other in 30 seconds all because that’s what I want to do and I can. And despite all I’ve invested into this trip to get to Mongolia, they are sunk costs. I’d rather be happy. I don’t stick to things solely because I’m too stubborn to change it. I realized a long time ago the only thing that does is make you miserable. I don’t do the whole “regret” thing, and there’s no way I will regret this decision. 

The thing is, I don’t want to spend my time and money driving all day every day with someone who doesn’t seem to want me there. So, one hour into the 7 hour wait to cross the border into Georgia, I passed my keys to Eric, got out of the driver’s seat, packed both my bags up in 5 minutes and moved them all to our convoy team’s car. Shane would pick up where I left off and in the meantime, I’m in a car with four other Canucks, which is a blast. There is conversation in the car. We blast T-Swift and a bunch of hick Albertan songs that they all yell the words to. You can find me sandwiched in the back seat. Alberta boys, tried and true, born and raised. I’m hoping they help out my Canadian accent. The bags are all strapped to the roof, which is caving in under all the weight, and the whole vehicle needs to be pretty organized for us to actually fit into it. I’ve got a ride to Kazakhstan and I’m flying from there directly to Moscow. It’s cheaper than the gas it would have cost to drive from Ulan-Ude. Not only that but now the costs of this trip are split five ways, and we all aren’t driving for 16 hours every day to get far enough to meet a crazy schedule. I’ll save Mongolia for a motorcycle, done deal.

We’re now in Georgia, a country that I knew absolutely nothing about and didn’t know what to expect. Their writing is funny curly characters and we can’t read anything. I still don’t really know what their currency is called but I’ve got the exchange rate on lock… it’s called GEL, but we’ve taken to calling them George Dollars which is probably completely wrong. The highways are pretty small and wind through the mountains. The buildings in the older streets are cracked in half but people are still living in them. We’ve got a couple of days to kill before we can cross the border into Azerbaijan. After that, we play it all by ear and everyone is much happier for it. 

So we started killing days in Georgia and we absolutely nailed them. We did a day in the city and wandered the Old Town and then headed for the mountains in the north near the Russian border. The road was epic, with huge localized lightning storms thundering over the peaks. Switchbacks made the little matchbox Agila squeak around the corners as we climbed higher and higher passing little honey stands and crumbling stone churches. 

It was drizzling and cold up above 2,000m as we turned off the main road to head to a campsite about 12km off route. I didn’t realize I was about to direct this mission up a 4x4 track, but it happened. We made our first teensy stream crossing, rocked our way up the side of the mountain and only bottomed out once in the muck. Straight drop off the side of the valley on one side, the other side varied between old landslides and rocks.

When we got to the little town of Juta (not really a town, just a few buildings) we parked the car and took all of our gear and hiked up a slippery steep slope for 15 minutes to the campsite. The mountains were velvety green and towered above us and cows and horses grazed on the slopes. Not much else was there, which was why it was awesome. The hour-long 4x4 track was more than worth it.

The next day we ate breakfast at the café and headed deeper into the mountains to hike up to Gergeti Trinity Church. I have no idea why anyone would build a church way up there but I can’t see anyone getting dressed up too fancy on a Sunday for the killer 1 hour long hike that was more or less, straight up. The views were spectacular and the clouds seemed to creep in closer by the minute, the afternoon thunderstorms approaching as we walked back down. 

And now… more time to kill. Up next is the sketchiest paperwork part of the “stan” experience: the 5 day transit visa to Turkmenistan that we only have a Letter of Invitation for currently. The pickle is that we need to cross the Caspian Sea from Baku, Azerbaijan to Turmenibashi, Turkmenistan on a ferry. This ferry is unscheduled and only leaves when it’s full. No one knows when the hell that is. Barely anyone even knows where you buy a ticket. Apparently you call up some random guy called Ishamel and he sets it up for you for $90USD. He must be making a killing. 

In the meantime, you’ve got to turn that Letter of Invitation into a full-fledged visa at the Turmen Embassy, which is only open on Mondays and Fridays between 1000-1300 (or something). You’ve got to choose your visa dates and gamble that a ferry is leaving near the start of them. If you choose terribly, your Turkmenistan visa can run out before you even land in Turkmenibashi. I have an out: I can run into Kazakhstan visa-free and get into Uzbekistan that way, but the boys have single entry visas to Kazakhstan so they are fully trapped if this ferry-transit-visa thing goes awry (all countries that border Turkmenistan require visas for Canadian passports). I don’t want to employ my back up plan. I want it to work out so we can all tackle the Pamir together in this matchbox of a car. I want to hear the wheel bearings make that wub-wub-wub sound as the brakes are stinking as we head down from something close to 5,000m while we all feel lightheaded and sick from altitude. Because that sounds like a great time to me. We can yell T-Swift as we dodge all the trucks grinding around those single lane blind corners in the dirt.

Cheers from Tbilisi, Georgia.


Eastern Europe + The Canadian Convoy Takes Turkey

July 27, 2016

We met up with another Canadian team after the night in Budapest. I felt like a million bucks – first night in a bed will do that. Eric did not feel like a million bucks. Foam parties do that. We rolled out in our Canadian Convoy (their team name is Beaver Fever… no comment) to the Romanian-Hungary border. At that point Eric and I hopped over to the EU/CH passport line and the Canadians stayed in All Passports. EU lines always go faster at airports, so we figured it would be the same here, except it wasn’t. 

Beaver Buddies beat us through by a long shot and when we got through (miraculously the border guards didn’t even ask for our registration papers), Beaver Tails were nowhere to be found. We pulled into the next three pull-outs and kept an eye out at gas stations, but we would not find them again until we all wound up on a beach on the Black Sea. We puttered along, once again, solo. A few teams didn’t make it through to the Romanian border, mostly because they did stupid things, like not have their car registration. More than a few teams have dropped out because their cars have completely died on them: the engine’s blown up, the transmission gave up, etc. Even Beaver Tails had a bit of a fiasco getting through Bucharest –they went straight through downtown with their ignition stuck, so they couldn’t start the engine and they couldn’t turn the power off. Unfortunately they stalled in the middle of downtown and had to push start it in traffic. To turn it off they had to disconnect the battery. Such goes life.

We drove to Romania’s most famous road, The Transfagasaran Highway, mostly known for Top Gear. It climbs to just over 2,000m and is the second highest road in Romania after the Trans Alpina. As we clunked off the freeway towards the mountains the roads degraded until we were dodging cows, horses and puppies. Echoes of Southeast Asia. We could feel the road rules slowly melting away. The clouds were coming in and the cold came rushing with them as we ascended the many switchbacks. We twisted upwards in the dark with no idea where to sleep. We decided the side of the road was adequate and passed out at the very top. When in Romania, do like the gypsies and shanty. The clouds cleared for the morning and we got an early start on the day. It seemed like half the Rally was on that road – most of us sleeping on the side of the road. We slowly drove through a herd of sheep crossing the road and descended until we found two little bears. They came over and wiped their paws all over our car while we quickly rolled the windows up. 

After hours on the freeway we arrived in Constanta on the Black Sea, which kind of seems like the edge of safety. We set our tents up on the beach (still trying to get the sand out of mine) and before long Rally cars and tents had covered the entire area. Everyone was washing their hair in the sea at the edge of Europe, like this was going to be their last chance. The party went until the early hours, but we got out at around 8:00AM and went straight back the way we had came and made it just across the border into Serbia, towards our base camp – they had our Power of Attorney document for the vehicle and we probably wouldn’t get out of Europe without it. The Serbs are exceptionally nice people and the food was stellar, even at our campsite, which we were unsure of at first but quickly warmed to. See, when my phone said it was a campsite we didn’t really believe it – it looked like a restaurant on the edge of a wide lake so we slowly crept down and looked for someone who wanted to answer tourist questions at 8:30PM.

“Camping?” we asked tentatively.
“Yes!” said the owner
“Tuš?” I asked ("Shower", because sitting in a car all day at 35C with the heat blasting in traffic so that the engine doesn’t overheat does not make one smell nice)
“Yes!” said the owner
“How much?” asked Eric.
“Free!” said the owner

What? I love the word, free. It wasn’t technically free. We were strongly encouraged to buy something at the restaurant, which came to a grand total of 8 euro and was 100% delicious and worth it.

Serbia was a step up from Romania – things were cleaner, people were nicer, the food was better and the general scenery seemed better. We picked up our papers from our base camp (more to come on these amazing people but my favourite quote of the day was, “What’s the point of life if you only have pajamas and a work suit?”) and drove out at 5:00PM, direction Istanbul. We made it right to the border of Serbia-Bulgaria and found a campsite at 10:00PM directly off the highway. The next day we scooted through Bulgaria, which from the freeway, doesn’t look that nice, and met up with our Beaver Buddies at a random gas station 20 minutes from the Turkey-Bulgaria border. The moment of truth had arrived. Would we get this car out of Europe without Shane in the vehicle? So we rolled to the exit of Bulgaria and exited Bulgaria, no problem. We handed over our passports at the Turkish entry (yes, yes, more stamps! We love new stamps!) and rolled through, no problem. The girl didn’t even ask for our Power of Attorney. At that point I was pretty sure we were good to go.

The next thing you need to do when you enter Turkey is buy car insurance. Enter the issues. It took us 3 hours to clear the 3 checkpoints on this border but most of it was for car insurance. Eric spent the better part of 2 hours running to and from the car and into the building trying to find the right documents. They wanted Shane’s passport number. We had to find it without Shane around. Luckily Eric has a scan of his passport on his near-dead laptop. Finally, with the sun setting blood red behind us, we headed into Turkey. A whole new world. The end of normality. My third-world senses prickled up on high alert. That orderly chaos you find in these types of countries was rampant. People yelling, flags everywhere, stalls, fruit stands, starving kittens rummaging through garbage bins, the call to prayer that I haven’t heard since my days in Indonesia, old ladies covered head to toe all sitting next to each other in their alleyway doorsteps just observing our two sticker-covered tiny shit vehicles clunking over the cobblestones. So this is where the real Rally begins. Europe was child’s play. 

Miraculously we found a campsite in the dark about 30 minutes from the border. A kind old lady tried hard (and succeeded) in explaining to us how many Rally teams had come through that site in the past few days. We’re a day or two behind the main horde due to our Serbian detour but there are still many teams taking a leisurely route through Europe and more than a few teams that have given their attempt at Mongolia up entirely. We were rolling at 0800 the next morning and took the north bridge into Istanbul in heavy traffic, heating on full blast to keep the engine somewhat reasonable, and all of a sudden, bam, freeway speeds direction Ankara. 

Turkey doesn't look all that different from a lot of the rest of Europe once you get into the countryside - just a bit drier and a bit dustier and maybe a bit hazier. Ankara rose out of the muted tones like some apocalyptic city. Turkey's high rise architecture looks like they adopted it from the 1980s, so even if a building is brand new, it looks old. Everything felt empty in the suburbs. Half built concrete high rise structures, abandoned halfway through the project, stuck out of the fields like skeletons dressed with giant Turkish flags hung between them, blood red against the fading sunlight. 

It was 7:30PM by the time we had made our way around Ankara, the sun threatening to set behind the low hills behind us. We still had two hours to go until we reached what my phone told me was a campsite. When we got there in the dark (middle of complete nowhere) we were greeted by a very confused security guard. No sleep. No. 

We regrouped and assessed our options: sleep in our cars on the side of the road, sleep in tents in a field, or push for another 2 hours to Cappadocia, which according to my phone was a mecca of hostels and campsites. We chose the last and were rewarded with a campsite all to ourselves. And a pool all to ourselves and a panoramic view of Cappadocia to watch the balloons rise the next morning at 0500. Which of course... we had to do. 

So today we are basking in the well-deserved fact that we aren't driving anywhere. Tomorrow we'll be right back at it trying to get to a campsite as close as we can find to Sarpi, Turkey on the Turkish-Georgian border. We've heard this border crossing takes 4-9 hours just for general queuing so we're going with the crack of dawn approach and hope it saves us a few hours. We've also been told they sell beer at the border... I'm sure they're making a killing off the Rally.

For any worried mothers, cousins, boyfriends, girlfriends, best friends, BFFs, in-laws, aunts, uncles and whatever else I didn't cover, you can now track our latest location inclusive of the last seven days (starting today because I've been completely lazy in setting this up) on this page. I generally send 3 types of messages: Check-in/OK, HELP and SOS. I've never pressed the last two. To see what kind of message it is, click on the paddle and its details will pop up. The latest check in pin will have the highest number. 

Cheers from Cappadocia, Turkey.


60% of Fundraising Completed, The Launch, The Deal with Turkey and Why It's Crucial & 9 Countries

July 20, 2016

From the title you might think things are happening fast and all over the place. You’d be right, life is still exploding in a million pieces and we’ve got zero time to pick them up. 

Take out a map and try to draw an unbroken line from Bulgaria or Greece, to Azerbaijan without going through Turkey. It’s close to impossible, the only alternatives being to head north through Russia or to take a 60 hour, $590USD ferry ride (ahem... cargo ship) across the Black Sea that only leaves once a week. 

You’d think enough things were against us already at this point: Shane leaving last minute, my bags being lost between the US and London (reclaimed, crisis averted), the car’s registration papers being completely in Swedish… but let’s add that attempted military coup in Turkey. The military rose up, civilians were killed, tanks roamed the streets and soldiers blocked both bridges into Istanbul. The Government of Canada changed Turkey to the status of: “Avoid All Travel”. So did the States. Things are wildly unstable. It will take at least 4 days to drive through Turkey and if we enter and something happens, our insurance isn’t going to care under that travel advisory. They’re going to call us idiots. Which technically, we definitely would be.

Most teams have no idea what they are doing if they can’t get through Turkey, because not getting through Turkey is a make it or break it deal (read: this means most teams will drive through Turkey no matter what). If you don’t get through Turkey, most peoples' Russian visas don’t start until mid-August, leaving us precious little time to even head up and over north and slam the pedal down for Ulan-Ude (figuratively speaking, since these cars aren’t fast), let alone for all the other countries we shelled out loads of money on visas to go see (Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan). So, we wait to make that decision. 

In happier news we did actually make it to the start line, which is a feat in itself. There were teams that didn’t due to passport issues, car issues and teammate issues. We all camped out in the field opposite the Goodwood racing circuit and found all the Canadians, promising to convoy through Turkey with them if the government changed the travel status. It looks like we put zero effort into our car compared to most other teams (we did put zero effort into it…). A lot of teams have been planning this for a year or more so their cars look amazingly ridiculous. There’s one guy who is attempting to drive a 3-wheeled open top car with a 400cc motorcycle engine dropped into the front, so like a motorcycle, it doesn’t have reverse. Luckily for him, the car is so tiny that to reverse it, he just gets out and lifts the back end and drags it where he pleases. He found the skeleton of the car rotting in a cabbage patch two months ago and decided: she’s the one. It’s from 1959.

The next morning after an eternity of waiting and a rather nice headache (happy birthday to me), many awards and announcements, including a cheater award given to an American team with a 2.0L engine (“Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!”) - they have to carry a massive golden cone, AKA the Cone of Shame, on top of their car through every single country as punishment, all the teams did a loop around the Goodwood circuit before heading out in various ways to the ferry to France. Within the first 10km, we saw three cars on the side of the road that had already broken down, so on some level we are succeeding. Small victories. 

Eric and I weren’t even sure if we were going to be let out of England, because there was an off chance that someone realized the ticket is in Shane’s name, asked why he isn’t there, and then asked who owns the car, and then asked for the power of attorney… which we only have a scan of at this point. The hard copy is being sent to Serbia. 

We stayed in Belgium the first night. The second day we made it to Biel, but we did it by shooting through Luxembourg, France, Germany and Switzerland. Five countries in one day (my new personal best). For the record: French drivers, not my favourite. I got flipped off a few times for passing people too slowly. I’m sorry guys, but this car maxes out at 125kph, and that’s on a flat grade. If I get an incline while I’m beside a truck I was trying to pass… I’m stuck. My bad. But besides the characteristic French welcome, the first hurdles had been cleared.

It was odd driving back through Switzerland. We crossed roads I’d cycled on many times. The Alps are still my favourite mountains. We detoured through Liechtenstein because everyone ignores poor Liechtenstein and it’s a pretty place (but it might as well be Switzerland). We wove through Austria to Hallstatt along amazing roads and curvy mountain passes - I’ll be heading back there on two wheels at some point without a doubt. 

We usually don’t know where we are sleeping until about 9:00PM but today was an exception; we’re in Budapest, Hungary and besides not being able to understand a word and the funny currency, this city looks amazing… not that I’ve seen any of it. We arrived at 7:00PM and it’s an 8:00AM departure tomorrow. Such goes the Rally: can’t stop, drive drive drive. There’s word of a foam party tonight but I left that up to Eric to investigate. At least he’ll be clean!

Wifi is scarce, time is sparse, the distances long. Currently, Canada has changed it’s Travel Advisory on Turkey to “Avoid All Non-Essential Travel”. You know what that means? If nothing changes… Turkey is a GO.

And we better get through Turkey, because Shane will be waiting for us in Tbilisi, Georgia on July 30th. The pressure's on.

Cheers from Budapest, Hungary.

Bad Omens and Shit Hitting the Fan

July 14, 2016

Yesterday my life started exploding in sharp, pain-in-the-ass, fragments. It was 2 hours before I left for the airport in Chicago when I got a message saying that Shane has had to back out of the Rally due to (very legitimate) personal reasons. That leaves just Eric and I to man this fully unprepared, 30,000 mile attempt to drive across a third of the planet and back. It also leaves the unsolved problem that Shane is the owner of Louise and to take her across borders without the owner… problematic. We’re working on it. We have already found a base camp in Serbia where documents and supplies can be forwarded so we can pick it up before we exit Europe. But that is just the unimportant minor-details part and doesn’t solve any real problems.

So that was the first sharp fragment. The universe didn’t want me to leave Chicago. I didn’t want to leave Chicago. The planes were delayed, then they were grounded. Then further delayed. I stepped off the plane in Iceland and yep, Iceland hasn’t gotten any warmer since last May. It was a quick connection in Keflavik and we were off on the short flight to Heathrow.

Let’s gloss over the fact that I have never lost my baggage when traveling. I have had nightmare connections and never had a problem. So this, of all times, with my backpack finally packed for nearly a year of travel in all climates (read: my life, my camping gear, all of my clothes) is when they lose it. They lose it when I have no hotel address, no friend’s address, and I don’t even have the address of the campsite we are staying at. They lose it when I don’t know where I will be in 3 days. Perfect. All I have on my feet are a pair of $3 flip flops.

I had a very fun conversation with the Baggage people. They were asking all sorts of difficult questions: Where do you live? What’s your phone number? Why don’t you have a phone number? What do you mean you do but it’s from New Zealand and won’t work if we call it? Well, wait, you’re staying at a campsite? What’s the closest airport to Biel, Switzerland? You should know, you just said you live there. But this is a Canadian passport… did you fly on this one? No? What are you doing? I don’t like difficult questions.

Eric pulled up in Louise (she looks a lot more questionable in person) at the International Departures loop – we’re both too cheap to pay for Pickup Parking. He went right into describing all the funky noises Louise has been making and how none of them are real cause for concern unless they are louder than the AC on setting 4. He's got some stray buoys from Norway in the roof rack rattling around up there and it sounds absolutely alarming. The clearance on this thing is like, don’t hit any potholes in the beautifully paved London road because we might get stuck in it.

I would also like to describe the state of the mess in Louise as verging on catastrophic. Maybe I’ll have a new definition for that word within the next 6 weeks. I will just let the pictures speak for themselves. Louise is getting a makeover tomorrow if I can help it, but that is second priority to the question of: where the hell are we going?

I feel truly homeless: I carry everything I have in a 25L backpack and everything I have is a toothbrush, a laptop and camera equipment. Expensive hobo gear. I’d love my 65L bag back. We stopped at H&M for some undies and another shirt. Technically, that’s all I need. Mongolia, we’re still coming for you. We’re coming for you until we have run out of options. But at the rate we’re blowing options out of the water… anything can happen.

Cheers from London, England.

Insure me & Take my money (PLEASE!?)

June 3, 2016

It’s rare that you delve into the exclusions of an insurance certificate before you actually have to make a claim (it’s then that you learn that insurance companies are sneaky bastards and love their loops). Travel insurance will probably cover you no problem while you are lying on the beach, but probably won’t cover whatever actions you take after you’ve had 4 cocktails at the all-inclusive. Think about that: your insurance goes kaput as soon as you get a buzz on.

Now think what your insurance company does when you tell them, “Hey, can you insure me for a road trip in a shitty car through 20+ countries that I’m doing to raise money for charity? I promise we aren’t racing. I promise we are good drivers. I promise, we aren’t being paid and I promise we’ll be safe!”

You know what they all say, of course: “Something happens, you’re on your own,” Or else, “Sorry, we can’t insure you since you have already left your home province,” or, “We can’t insure you because you are not a resident of the UK/AUS/NZ/EU.” As I sat there sweating for hours in a Spanish McDonald’s, freeloading their free wifi, the situation became dire: 18 companies contacted and only 2 had any potential. The fight is on. I have no idea what to do. I have not solved this one.

“Louise has been inspected. She passed. She is insured until June 2017 and she is 100% road-worthy.”

But, there was a shining moment of glory during my bout in McDonald’s. Shane popped on with, “Louise has been inspected. She passed. She is insured until June 2017 and she is 100% road-worthy.” Whether she will remain in such fantastic shape is an entirely different story, but we will try to be nice to her. She’s already come so far. I’m already proud of her. I haven’t even met her. 

Cheers from Arcos de la Frontera, Spain

Super Immunity

May 22, 2016

If there's one thing I brought traveling with me that I never thought I would actually use, it's that medical booklet they give you when you get vaccines. It's starting to look a little like my passport: overcrowded and beat up.

The upfront costs of the Mongol Rally are (I am hoping) the bulk of the costs. Because they have been extortionate. Vaccines and visas seem to be sucking my dollars into a black hole and I know I'm not the only one.

The big vaccine for the rally is Tick Borne Encephalitis... which I'm just simply not getting. It's not even available in the States so all the Americans are fretting over, "What if we only get the first shot in London, will that do anything?" Doubtful. Wear long pants?

The other vaccines we've collectively been infected with are re-dos of Typhoid, Polio boosters, Typhoid pills (Sweden has some strange traditions), Hep A boosters, Tetanus shots and the other big one: Rabies. Rabies shots are delivered on Day 0, Day 7 and Day 21 which is really pushing my limit on how long I stay in one place. I squished it into 18 days.

Shane and Eric have the blessing and curse of the student life and the student discount for their vaccines while I shelled out the full Swiss price. All my visa applications are complete. The light at the end of the visa paperwork tunnel is blinding. I've been granted 10 days in Azerbaijan and supposedly, 2 entries into Russia. 

The catch is that my passport is somewhere between Luzern and Zurich, bouncing off of mailboxes and I'm flying to Portugal this evening. Oops?

Meanwhile Eric hasn't applied for the Azeri or Russian visas and is still waiting on his residency in Sweden so he can do the Russian one in person.

And finally, the donations have begun! We have raised 165GBP for Cool Earth (33% of the goal) and $200 for Engineers Without Borders (21% of the goal). 

Cheers from Nänikon, Switzerland.

Meet Our Wheels

May 13, 2016

Everyone, we have a big problem. We can't agree on what to call her. I want to call her Lissy and Shane wants to call her Louise and Eric in true Eric-fashion doesn't like either of those names and probably wants to call her Anti-Matter 2.0.

It's a 1998 Opel Corsa ECO with 180,000km on it. The colour... like someone ate a few too many gold flakes and then puked it all up. Does it purr like a kitten? No. Absolutely no.

Because the other little problem we have is that this baby, whatever we are going to call her, failed Swedish vehicle inspection. Eric took it all the way to Copenhagen and it almost became a tricycle when a wheel nearly decided to fall off and roll away. The springs on the front need to be replaced and there's an oil leak... but the location has yet to be identified.

It cost us a whopping $940CAD. If I had to guess, I'm prepared to spend the same amount keeping it running. 

An update on the visas... they are coming. We think. We hope. We wish and pray. Nothing's changed. Azerbaijan and Russia are still "in process". An update on vaccines... the boys are procrastinating and I've been jabbed with an expensive version of fake rabies and tetanus while giving up on tick-borne encephalitis, so hopefully the ticks will just stay away. Call me safe, maybe sorry. 

Cheers from Nänikon, Switzerland

The Countdown is On: Visas at 60%

April 29, 2016

There’s 77 days until the rally begins in London. That’s 77 days we have to get immunizations. 77 days to get the remaining pain-in-the-arse visas. 77 days to have a wicked car ready to go. 

Our tedious, mind-numbing, endless fretting, paperwork and emailing has paid off in 2.5 visas each. Uzbekistan now takes up a page and Tajikistan and its GBAO permit takes up a greedy two pages of our passports. The Turkmenistan LOI for a 5-day transit visa is in the works – this is a blanket visa given to Rally participants only and takes a couple months to come back via email (so we’re still waiting on it, but we’re sure it’s coming, right?). 

But the fun and games don’t stop there. Eric and Shane both have Letters of Invitation for a Russian double entry tourist visa, while I am, of course, behind. I’ve got nothing for Russia besides a wish and a prayer.

So while I’m sweating over getting a Letter of Invitation for a double entry visa to Russia, we all are sweating over the actual visa application for this country. Russia isn’t the type of country you just waltz up to the border in a car that’s falling apart with $20USD and a 26 of vodka and you get into. You’ve also got to show proof that you’re insured for at least £30,000 and prove you’ve got at least £100 in your bank account for every day you plan on being in Russia if you’re unemployed. I’m definitely unemployed. How is it even possible to spend that much money every day you’re in a country like Russia? These people must be living large. There’s also the added curveball that we’ve heard rumours that you need to apply for this visa in the country of your passport. Easy enough for myself and Shane, but poor Eric’s passports aren’t going to help him out in Sweden.

The last and final [visa] hurdle is the Azerbaijan e-visa, which would seem like it’s a piece of cake (after all when has anyone heard of an e-visa being difficult) until you realize that you need a confirmed hotel booking for every night you’re in the country, plus a ton of vehicle details. 

Oh wait, didn’t we mention we’ve got a vehicle now? Stay tuned. She’s a beauty. You’re gonna love her.

Cheers from Nänikon, Switzerland

Visa Hell

March 31, 2016

Three weeks ago, I could not have told you the difference between Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Now I can tell you that between 6 passports and 3 people, we get to spend a lot of money juggling passports at border checkpoints to get through these tricky countries. I can also tell you that the Pamir Highway requires a GBAO permit, the Door to Hell is in Turkmenistan so we can’t miss it, and the ferry across the Caspian Sea runs on no set schedule so hopefully it leaves when or if we reach Baku. 

Forms were printed, terrible photos were taken, things were signed, dates of an unplannable journey were “estimated”, cover letters were written, cancellable hotel bookings were made and everything was sent to London, England in hopes that when our little passports return, we will have been granted entry to some of the countries we need to pass through.

Azerbaijan and Russia are the next on our list since The Visa Machine in the UK cannot do a Russian visa for us and they wildly overcharge for the Azerbaijan e-visa.

In other news, Eric and Shane search desperately for a car that meets The Adventurists’ ridiculous engine limits of 1L. How we’re going to get this car up and over the Himalayas on dirt roads is something I don’t want to think about right now.

What I do want to think about is that the websites are up. The donations are open. And when we get these passports back with the visas so neatly stamped into them, there will be a few adult beverages consumed. 

Cheers from Fox Glacier, New Zealand

"Steph, this page was a waste of time, take me somewhere interesting like the game plan, the charity campaigns, or tell me who the hell is nuts enough to actually attempt this."

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