episode 8: eastern europe + the canadian convoy takes turkey

July 27, 2016

Read next: Episode 9

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 (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 silly things, like not have their car registration. More than a few teams have dropped out because their cars have 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 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 it. We slowly drove through a herd of sheep 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 feels a bit like the edge... the point of no return. 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, 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 absolutely delicious. I don't really know what it was, besides yummy.

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, and met up with our Beaver Buddies at a gas station 20 minutes from the Turkey-Bulgaria border. The moment of truth had arrived. Would we get the 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. 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 had a scan of his passport on his near-dead laptop. Finally, with the sun setting blood red behind us, we headed into Turkey. It felt like a new world. The end of "normality". I've always loved when you cross a border and everything changes suddenly. My senses prickled up on high alert. People yelling, flags everywhere, stalls, fruit stands, skinny kittens rummaging through garbage bins, the call to prayer that I hadn’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. 

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 slower route through Europe and more than a few teams that have given their attempt at Mongolia up entirely. We were rolling at 8:00AM 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 of the hills. 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 5:00AM. Which of course... we had to do. 

So today we are happily not driving 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 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.

Read next: Episode 9

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