After 30 minutes of waiting on the Bulgarian side of the border we had our first interaction with the Turkish border authorities. Josh tells them emphatically how good it is to be in Turkey. Josh has subsequently told every other Turkish person who has engaged him in conservation that it is amazing to be here before hugging them or shaking their hand vigorously. It’s very amusing to watch and I wonder what the Turks think has happened to us for Josh to be doing this so emphatically. Put simply, Josh did not like Romania, but before I get to that story, a brief run down of the rally launch and the trip following.
As we approached the rally launch site, near Prague, on Sunday morning we increasingly began to see a colourful mix of rundown cars. Cars painted up as the muppets with speakers blaring, cars with inflatable unicorns on top, cars with bath tubs for roof racks, and cars that looked like they would break down any minute. It was quite the gathering by the time we arrived at the entrance to Junk Town. We crossed a unofficial border and were greeted by a post apocalyptic mad max style compound. Hybrid dessert buggies with spikes decorating them and machine guns welded to the roof, adult and baby doll parts dangling from trees, a number of ‘locals’ in post apocalyptic garb walking around with steam punk esq weaponary. It was a bit weird, but no weirder than the cars and drivers of the Mongol Rally.
We had an official welcome to the rally from one of the organisers, your cliché British eccentric, dressed in a pure white full length suit, had some warnings about Turkmenistan from the British ambassador to Turkmenistan, and were given an insight into Mongolian culture with some throat singing, wrestling, and body contortion. The rest of the night was spent getting to know our fellow ralliers (there are at least 60 other kiwis doing the rally this year) and having a look round everyone’s vehicles. Unfortunately , we were caught in a thunderstorm and Junk Town began to resemble the horrific scenes you think of when you hear the words ‘English summer” and Glastonbury.
We had also been given a “shame sticker” each. These were to stick on the car that we believed would have too easy a time getting to Mongolia. Essentially, the rally organisers discourage anyone from being so prepared as to make the trip easy so encourage you to collectively shame people to discourage such silly behaviour in the future. There were a couple of candidates: a Mitsubishi pajero mini 4wd that had an identical looking trailer attached to it – no need to be uncomfortable in the cab when you can fit all of your things in the trailer. There was a second 4wd which also looked kitted out to take on serious 4wd adventures, it had a fold out ladder which led to a tent on the roof – very luxurious indeed.
Launch day. A leisurely start was had with the eccentric British man in white suit leading a mariachi band through the camp waking everyone up. There were a few awards to give out before we left, for best car and worst car. Best car of course being the car most unsuited to drive all the way to Mongolia – in this case narrowed down to a choice between a reliant robin (not reliant at all as it had to be pushed to the start line and had broken down the day before) and a 100cc motorbike with side car attached. The motorbike won out. The award for worst car of course was for the car that was most likely to get to Mongolia and therefore have a thoroughly boring trip, the winner was the pajero with the trailer. As punishment the drivers first had to withstand 700 people all yelling shame, and then were given a giant rear projection tv, spray painted gold, which they had to fit onto their car, as well as a giant golden satellite dish. Believe me, it was not a burden for this team.
To leave Junk Town and officially start the Rally we had to complete lap around the inside of the perimeter and then exit through a giant Mongol Rally gate mounted with smoke guns and people cheering. We were both in the Penguin suits, and Josh spent the lap hanging out the window, it took about 2 hours to get everyone out the gate, but before we knew it we were on the road, officially part of the 2019 Mongol Rally.
I’ll try cover the next part of the trip quickly as I’m really far behind with writing:
First stop was to make it Budapest. It took us 6 hours to drive through some rather uninspiring country, km after km of flat farm land covered in either corn or sunflowers. The sunflower paddocks are very impressive to begin with, but after you’ve seen a couple they quickly fade into the background. Arrived in Budapest at 8pm with just enough time for a night time walk around the city. Budapest is such a lively city, even on a Monday night all the restaurants in the cbd are open until after 12am, and locals and tourists fill public spaces during the warm summer nights, sharing a bottle of wine or beer. We were in bed by midnight in time to get up early the next morning for a drive to Romania
Hungary to Romania.
Romania was one of the countries Josh was looking forward to most; in particular, he really wanted to go to this underground theme park in an old salt mine, we estimated we would get there about 30 minutes before last entry into the park. Like Hungary, the scenery was pretty uninspiring, lots of sunflowers and corn. However, much like the choice of cheap beers in New Zealand: Speights, Export Gold, Tui, Steinlager, all looking or tasting fairly similar, one is definitely worse than the others. Romania is the tui beer of eastern Europe. The tight time frame was made a bit more stressful by the insane driving undertaken by the locals; constant passing in the most horrendous of spots – we had several near misses and Josh was getting increasingly annoyed at how terrible it all was. Unfortunately, things got worse when we realised 10 minutes out from the salt mine that we had changed time zones when we crossed into Romania and that instead of getting there with 15 minutes to spare, we were actually 45 minutes too late. It was a bit of shame and it was our fault for not realising the time had changed, but it really set the tone for the rest of the trip in Romania.
We headed from the closed salt mine towards the Transfagaaran, purportedly one of the world’s best driving roads. On the way there we noticed a couple of points of interest;
1) Gnome and forest critter sellers. Every tiny town or village has a gigantic roadside stop selling these super creepy concrete garden ornaments. It takes special talent to make something look terribly kitch and terrifying at the same time. Definitely the kind of thing that comes alive at night to steal away small children
2) Giant stalk nests on top of powerpoles. Through a number of villages stalks had built these ridiculous sized nests on top of the power poles and had fledging chicks with them. This was so interesting that I decided I wanted to stop and take a photo. This decision ended with me having to run away from a rabid dog which chased me down the street and 3 drunk locals who were looking to start a fight
3) Donkey drawn carts
4) Those round hay stacks where the hay has both been cut and stacked by hand
5) Old ladies, showing a lifetime on their faces, head covered in a shawl, selling garden vegetables outside the front of their houses.
WE spent the night camping beside a soviet era hydroelectric plant, between rubbish dumped by locals, used toliet paper and other human detritus. At least we woke up with no gnomes near by or locals with pitch forks.
Next morning we got up early to drive the transfagaraan. We soon found ourselves on a super windy road heading up into the mountains. The road was surrounded by dense deciduous forest giving way to conifer forest as we gained altitude. It was really beautiful, except all along the roadside, particularly in any stopping area, there was rubbish littered everywhere. We soon saw why, with locals throwing whatever they didn’t need out of the window. It was a cool road to drive and our we began to feel a little bit more positive about Romania, but then, we met our first corrupt official.
I was driving along a built up section of road, the speed limit had just reduced to 50, but the traffic was so packed there was no way I could have been speeding. Josh suddenly tells me “stop stop” there was a guy in uniform waving us down just there. So I pulled over (a naiive mistake on our part). He asked to see our road tax slip, which we passed over (in retrospect he was clearly disappointed we had it), then he claimed we had been driving to fast and needed to slow down and that we had been seen on camera (in retrospect this was obviously a rort, but at the time we had not yet mentally prepared ourselves to be dealing with corrupt officials we still had the naiive view that we were in Europe). Long story short we had the classic tale about we would normally have to pay a big fine, but that it was okay, asked about our trip, and then suddenly he moved straight into the “you must pay me this sum right now…” After asking for outrageous amounts we eventually paid 30 euro, which more came down to not having enough small notes. Unfortunately, that was the final straw for Romania, particularly for Josh. I think Josh found it particularly confronting because he is far less cynical than me and generally believe that most people are decent and there to help you. Me on the other hand, more annoyed at myself really, if we had chosen to keep driving pretending to be none the wiser I’m positive he would have just moved onto his next victim.
We are not the only ones who have fallen foul of the law though:
One of the other kiwi teams got a 60NZD find for not paying road tax in Bulgaria
Another team got a 200 euro fine at the Serbian border, because after waiting in line for 2 hours they did not have their seatbelts on when they arrived at the actual passport control point.
After our corruption experience we got out of Romania to Bulgaria as fast as possible. Unfortunately, Josh had already written off Bulgaria, believing it to be too close to Romania to be a nice place. I on the other hand, loved it. Lots of craggy outcrops, lots of forested areas, significantly less rubbish dumped on the side of the road. It really felt like a nicer place. We were driving to the Buzludzha, which is a Soviet monument built on one of the highest mountains in Bulgaria commerating the first meeting of the workers party there. It looks like a giant UFO perched on the top of a mountain with a Soviet obelisk built beside it. Unfortunately, since our friend Anna had been there (Which is how we heard about it) authorities have stopped access into the interior of the building and even have a security guard posted there 24 hours a day. It was a real shame, because the inside is decorated with the most incredible mosaics. It was still awesome to see and it felt great to be out of Romania.
We met another team up there, Team Wilson, made up of a Texan, Brit and Irish guy. They were a great bunch and we spent the night trading stories. Turns out they had been looking for bears in Romania, where they are common, and noticed that our chosen camp ground in Bulgaria had bear poo all around it. There was a little bit of paranoia going to bed that night with my brain telling me that everyflap of the tent material in the wind was the sound of a bear pressing its head onto the tent.
The next morning we straight lined it to Turkey and onto Istanbul. As in the opening paragraph, the border guards were obviously more friendly, lots of smiles and non~threatening. I had to buy road tax across the border so found myself in a line with a bunch of Turkish and Eastern European truck drivers. The people selling the road tax had limited English, some of the truck drivers had no English or Turkish, and one or two of the drivers spoke Turkish and either Russian, Hungarian or Bulgarian. There was a lot of hilarity as everyone tried to use the limited language skills of those around them to get what they needed. I had a bit of a scare when after getting all the paperwork back the woman behind the counter told me the cost would be 1000 Turkish lyra. The truck drivers behind me all gasped, and they could see the look on my face. Then one of the other road tax employees said “no no, she means 100). All of the truck drivers began laughing at both the look of relief on my face, and their own relief as well.
Istanbul has been great for relaxing a little before our next big driving days. We have spent our time looking at the Hagia sophya and the Blue Mosque, the grand bazaar, spice market, and crossing to the other side of the Bosporus so as to step onto Asia for the first time this trip. Navigating the traffic has not been as bad as i thought and we were only stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for about 45 minutes before we found our hostel. As I wrote this we were leaving Istanbul for Gallipoli. Next update will include trying to find spare tyres as we left town, and our experience at Gallipoli.
(currently day 16 of our trip, day 6 of rally proper)
(kms travelled approx.5734km)