Thursday, August 28, 2008

As Matt would shout, PEOPLES!

So after I got lost and made them sit around the airport for a while I arrived at Tolmachevo airport and met up with Theo & Tina.  They had just arrived from Moscow which was their last stop on their quick (20 hour) hop over here from Seattle.peoples

I am quite happy that I found the airport and that Theo & Tina are now here for the remainder of the trip.  We headed back into town via more creative routing and by the time we made the hotel Theo had pronounced the suspension dead (I know but I'm cheap) and we decided to spend one more day in Novo to check over the car, pick up more supplies, and wait for my replacement credit cards. More later.

Muffled in Novosibirsk

Sunday I was finally feeling in tip top shape again and took a tour of Lenin Square.  Anchored by a rather beautiful domed Opera and Ballet house which doubled as the local meeting place and was great for people watching.opera-balletSadly neither is in session right now as tickets top out at about $9 and I wouldn't have passed up the opportunity to see the ballet in Russia.  At the front of the square is a giant statue to Lenin who as always seems to have happy worker statues nearby. lenin-workersAfter this I headed out to dinner with a buddy I'd met at the hotel from Seoul who is in Russia trying to setup a scrap metal deal since there is plenty of scrap metal laying around Russia these days and with current steal prices the demand for scrap has been increasing continually. Being that we were in the heart of Siberia we decided some authentic Mexican food was totally the way to go and we hit the creatively named "Cafe Mexico" and had a surprisingly good dinner of Fajitas and Bean soup.

Monday morning I decided to go get my car fixed.  A couple days earlier I'd gone over the engine and tightened screws, filled fluids, etc. But I'd left the important work for the professionals and now that I was feeling 100% it was time to get it done. Kazakhstan was a bit brutal on my car and while there  I destroyed my skid plate, lost my muffler, stereo, and passenger window.  So I find myself in Novosibirsk with a fully functional car that has taken a heck of a beating.  Now feeling 100% I headed out to find an ABTO CEPBNC (Auto Service) center and ended up on the right side (just barely) of the tracks at a rather suspect looking auto shop.  However like all things in Russia initial appearances frequently are deceiving and upon entering the shop I found a rather high tech operation.  We jacked up my car and measured the muffler space which led to a small debate.mufflernomoreThey then immediately sent someone to go grab a muffler from a parts store that would fit my tiny vehicle.  It seemed for a moment they considered cutting down one of the smaller mufflers they had but decided they should instead get a properly sized one and it seems that the majority of their business is SUVs, Toyota Vans, and the typical BMW/Mercedes that everyone seems to drive.  This didn't leave much space parts belonging to small Italian cars.  While they did this another tech re-attached my front skid plate which solves my largest concern for Mongolia.  I can survive without a muffler but I'm pretty sure I'll need my skid plate to make it to UB if the roads are as bad as KStan.  While they were working on my car I wandered down the street and found an Irish Pub (There's a bunch in this city) and after a bout of severe sticker shock (Meals ~$40) I had some coffee and wandered back to the shop where they put me to work fixing a couple of navigation systems in cars that they had imported from the US.  It seems that Russia must have extremely low auto import fees since a significant percentage of the vehicles in Russia are Japanese & American used cars that have been shipped over.  Sadly however a mere knowledge of English was not sufficient to the task and I told them they'd really need to get Honda or Acura to pony up a Russian DVD to get the system to work as designed.  Around this time they offered to get a window made for me for around $40 but said it wouldn't be ready till tomorrow.  I headed out back to the hotel and called it an early night.  One day stretched to two but in the end I've now got a new muffler, window, and oil change as well as the re-attached sump guard all for around $130 and after a quick trip to the local Fred Myer here I've got a gas grill for use in Mongolia and we'll be off shortly.  Smaller is Better is about a week ahead of us in Altay so if we are lucky we'll catch them by or if we are really fast on the way to UB.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Quick Update

Alex and Dave are out of Turkmenistan, and should be entering Kazakhstan today from Uzbekistan.  Theo and Tina are leaving (Seattle) on a jet plane and they don't know when they'll be back again.  They should be here in about 20 hours at which time we'll head for Mongolia.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bastards stole my Granola Bars.

I haven't eaten in three days. I've been doing a marathon trip to try and catch up with Smaller is Better (JCrew) in Novosibirsk (I'm here now) and have averaged about 900km's per day while working out engine issues. So on the road the first day I go to tuck into a granola bar and poof I realize that they are gone. They actually stole my damn driving food. I admit in hindsight that it seems odd that my granola bars were the most prized thing in the car and that I left them there.

Upon arriving in Novosibirsk I checked into a hotel recommended by Smaller is Better and this morning woke up feeling like crap. Who'd have guessed but appearently spending three days driving with no sleep, food, and heat can make you ill..

After talking with Theo and getting him to pretend to be me to United I now have a later departure date and can relax for a week and wait for Theo, Tina, Alex, and Dave to catch up. Maybe repair my car as well. I've actually managed to rip up the skid plate (thank god I had one) and I need a muffler as well as a bit of an engine overhaul. I'll make a better post later.

Monday, August 18, 2008

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Or "60 hours in KStan"

I woke up Saturday morning in the opulence of a real bed in a room with a real shower (it worked) and headed out of Atyrau after I made my last post.  Since I ditched Dave on the mountain and Alex is playing catchup I'm now on my own through KStan until I get to Novosibirsk.  Apparently its extremely unusual because EVERYONE comments on it.

In addition the night before as I arrived in Aturau my "Battery" light turned on in the car.  I figured I had largely drained the battery due to rockin a load stereo and running with my high beams and rally floodlights all night.  I figured a day of driving in the sun with low usage of the stereo would recharge the battery and I'd be good as new.

good

I was immediately treated to some amazing roads.  Smooth asphalt as far as the eye could see.  Sadly my eyes can't really see all that far and before long the road had a change of tempo.

bad

I took this photo about 40km's after the first photo.  By now the road was starting to get bad.  Before long there were potholes that when I drove through my car was literally UNDER where the road should have been.  I must apologize for not getting those photos but when I stopped the car to take a break and this photo I came back and the car wouldn't start.  I pushed it forward to the right a bit and got it going fast enough to jump start it (thank you tiny engine) so I was just trying to make the next city before nightfall.  However the road had other ideas and soon I had abandoned any pretence of driving on the road and was instead driving off in the plains keeping the train on my right and the road vaguely on my left.  I realized about two hours later as I saw other cars doing the same thing that in fact this was a normal process and that there were some actual routes that people drove routinely.  It seems that in Kazakhstan the only place people won't drive is on the roads. 

road

Every once in a while I'd pop back on to the road for a bit when it would improve but sadly I wasn't the only one.

traffic

Somewhere along the line I lost my muffler and picked up a couple Kazakh's for conversation who were, like me on their way to Aktobe.  They helped with the route and we had some great Russian-German-English conversations but as the sun set and my lights didn't work they tried to convince me that Auto Service was a mere 300km's away in Aktobe and that if we just pushed through they'd be happy to pay for my car repairs.  I have to admit that for once the responsible potion of my brain won out over the part that was saying "Screw it and just keep driving it's not like you'll run into any other idiots driving without lights." So with regret I stopped at the next village even though it was only 8:30 at night and said goodbye to my new friends.  I figured in the morning I'd push start my car.  Head on to Aktobe and get the car repaired there.

I'd stopped at a little roadside cafe that a 7 person family lived at and asked if there was a room I could stay in for the night.  They quite happily rented me a room for 500 Kazakhian whosiewhatsits which works out to about $4.20. 

thepad

It wasn't quite Westin quality in fact there wasn't a window but that's why I have a sleep sack and frankly the only thing I really wished it had was a shower because driving through the plains was brutal.  Either way I considered it a decent day.  I'd somehow gotten in 300km's in horrible condition with a failing car and figured I could make the remaining 300 easily in the morning now that I'd gotten a handle on how to select paths through the fields.  I woke up at 6 am sharp and hit the road.  Push starting my car again and feeling pretty good about the new day.

Almost immediately I realized something was wrong with Scarlet and it was bigger than my headlights not working.  About 12 kilometers after setting out it ground to a halt in the middle of nowhere.  I tried a couple times to push start it and when that failed I grabbed my messenger bag (Laptop, Passport, Cameras, Phones) and my 1 liter bottle of water for the walk back.  About 6km's later I hitched a ride with a Kazakh trucker who once again expressed incredulity that I was driving to Mongolia from London alone.  He dropped me back at the cafe where I spent about two hours trying to explain the problem with my car.  Eventually they walked out with a spare 12V battery and I was ecstatic but they pointed at it and said 'ploka' which means bad.  However the next thing they did was produce a battery charger.  The mother after consulting with her 12-13 year old son came up with a plan to get my car working. 

Her son (named Aljar) and his two older brothers would come with me to my car.  We would push start it and drive it back to charge the battery.  A few minute later Aljar showed up in their truck.

mynewride

By this point I'd realized there was kind of an odd dynamic in the family.  While Aljar was clearly the youngest non toddler present he seemed to be calling a lot of the shots.  This was further confirmed when he drove the truck to take the four of us to my car even though he had to be the youngest of the group by at least 3 years.  The oldest being about 36 even differed to him. 

Upon arriving at the car I got treated to the discovery that while I was away someone had broken in my window and stolen very little. 

broken

Should have snapped the photo before we cleaned up a bit but didn't think of it until later.  As a side note window scrapers do a great job of scraping glass off seats.  They stole my burned CDs and the faceplate to my deck and rifled through my bag looking for cash (they didn't take the fat stacks of Bulgarian currency sitting in the dash)  they did find my backup Amex card which is pretty much useless in KStan so in frustration they crushed it up.  They couldn't open the trunk so my liqueur supply was safe. 

We popped the hood and Aljar instantly pointed out that I no longer had a belt connecting my alternator to the engine.  Which meant that in addition to the battery being dead the alternator was also offline leaving Scarlet completely powerless.  We tried to push start her and after ten or so attempts we realized it wasn't going to happen.  I pulled out the trusty REI climbing rope I bought before I left Seattle and we managed to tow Scarlet back to the cafe to charge the battery.

chargeit

While we waited for it to charge they asked me to show them pictured of the places I'd got on the way to Kazakhstan.  Aljar's older brother was struggling to take a ring off his middle finder to move it to his ring finger.  I gave him some Aloe and it slipped right off.  He then proceeded to show both of the other two his middle finger repeatedly which kinda cracked me up.  Of all the places I've been they most loved Istanbul and all things Turkish.  By now I had decided Aljar was quite bright and learned he was studying Turkish at the high school in Aktobe.  From what I could tell it seemed that the family had put all it's eggs in Aljar's basket and his goal was to go find work in Turkey.

drivingschool

We charged the battery for another hour and I had a last meal with the family and then hit the road hoping to make Aktobe.  But by now it was nearly 3PM and it seemed unlikely I would make the final 300km's before nightfall.  However the roads improved about 40km's later and I was once again able to travel the majority of the time on the actual road.  I passed a bunch more graveyards.  I always want to call them Necropolis' since they frequently look like small scale large cities. 

necropolis

I'll get a better picture of one later and post it.  Some of them are very impressive.  The first time I saw one during the last Mongol Rally I literally thought we were approaching a massive city.

As it got dark I realized I was going to fall short of my goal for the second day in a row.  I considered driving into the dark without lights since the roads had improved but since I knew I hadn't fixed the alternator I couldn't justify doing the trip.  So I drove up to some cops and convinced them to find me a place to stay for the night.  They gave me an escort through town to the "Nice" marriage hall and talked to the owner who set me up in one of the back rooms since the wedding party was already done with it.  He also dug around in his backyard and found a piece of glass that fit part of my door and we installed it so that now I just have a little gap in the front.

window

I got a bite to eat and after explaining at length to Jahar who owned the marriage hall that I wasn't presentable enough to join the wedding he tried to teach me Russian for an hour and then I crashed hard.  The next morning Jahar took me shopping with him for the next nights wedding supplies.  It was amazing wondering the market with him since the cultural standard is if you know someone you greet them by shaking hands and talking for a minute or two.  But since he seemed to know everyone it was quite an experience.  At the market we also found a replacement belt for my alternator and I got a healthy supply of sunflower seeds.  About an hour later we had gotten the belt installed and I got two last push starts and I was on my way to Aktobe which was only 100km's away at this point.  Upon making town I found my way to a nice hotel (I'm quite good at finding nice hotels) and immediately took a very long shower. 

hotel

So tonight I'll decide my route to Novosibirsk with the help of the hotels manager since he seems quite well informed and his English is top notch.  I'm going to see about fixing the window / muffler so who knows tomorrow maybe my car will be like new..

the mini renaissance

The mini is back in action! It did require an incredibly frustrating week in Paris, but I now have documents where the VIN number actually matches the one in the car. And of course, when I tried to enter Ukraine again, with these proper documents, nobody even bothered to look at the VIN number, they just talked about what a legend the car was... Oh well, at least I know, I have corrected documents.

So, after finally receiving the paperwork from Rover confirming my VIN number, I had to go back to La Prefecture in Paris. Got to talk to the two exact same people that I'd spoken with the first time, and they were actually rather helpful this time... I tend to think that they were just overwhelmed that this American, who barely speaks French, had actually been able to produce documents (in French) that are official enough to get La Prefecture to admit a mistake and correct a document they had issued! They must've been flabbergasted because the new doucments were even free.

From Paris, it was back to Bratislava, where the car was waiting for me. I was soon to find out that I was actually paying 15 Euro a day for the privelege of parking there - I suppse for that sort money, they can afford to ensure security. Being rather ticked off by this new, unexpectedly large expense, I drove straight to Poland (still broken headlights and all), heading for Krakow (stopped to sleep about an hour outside of Krakow).

Krakow is beautiful - on my first day there, I was really enjoying the city. The sentiment would change by the second day, but more on that below, for now, a few shots of Krakow:

The old square and the Cathedral in the middle of Krakow.

That's me in front of the royal palace, you just can't tell very well

The mini in front of the cathedral


The next morning, as I'd mentioned, I suddenly developed a distinct distaste for the nation of Poland as I discovered that the car had been broken into right outside my hostel overnight. I didn't have any valuables in there obviously, and I really do want to know what idiot fuckng Polak looked at my dirty, rusty, beat-up mini and went "well, that car's just gotta be filled with valuables!" So instead of valuables, they got useful things: my tent, both crappy car stereos, the radar detector that I wasn's using, my compass!, both of my inverters (that have only American plug outlets...), two books that were in there (in English, of course...), and various other junk. Ironically enough, the four most valuable things in the car were:
- brand new copy of Windows Vista Ultimate ($400+ retail value)
- ~$150 in Russian rubles. Some Uzbek currency too, but that's obviously worthless
- my sleeping bag (~$120) actually cost more than the tent
- the uber toolkit from the last rally. But that was in the trunk, which they fortunately didn't get to.

None of these things were taken... Thanks for that, I suppose... They also actually broke my driver's side door lock, so the following afternoon, I got to spend a couple of hours learning just how it works, while putting it back together. Along the way, I also learned that August 15th is Assumption Day, a national holiday in Poland, so all mechanics were closed (thus I got to learn how to fix the lock myself).

Well, on that not so happy note,I figured it was time to go to a new country - Ukraine in this case. As mentioned above, the border crossing was trivial this time, and after a few hours on the Ukranian roads (which vary wildly in quality), I was in Kiev:






The amounts of attention, and almost adulation that the mini is attracting now that I am in Ukraine, where people have literally never seen a car like this on the road before is amazing (and somewhat refreshing after the rather negative experiences in Paris and Krakow. Also an interesting change of pace from the general indifference the Lada attracted last time). Literally, every time I park somewhere, I am now coming back to people taking pictures of the car on their cell phones... At least finding someone to ask for directions is never a problem.


Just past the Poland/Ukraine border: a group of bikers from the two countries were just as interested in getting some pictures taken with the mini, as I was with the bikes.


Yesterday afternoon, after going to the Kiev auto-market to pick up a few more things I needed (including replacing some stolen bits), I headed down to Odesa (on a surprisingly good 500km stretch of road), where I am now, taking full advantage of the free wi-fi my hotel is providing. Internet, however, is becoming a bit of a scarce commodity, as perhaps suggested by this sign in Kiev:

In Russian: 'the internet is not here, and where it is, noone knows!' This is inside of a place that claimed to be an internet cafe... cute...

So, we'll see how often we'll be getting to email/blog as we get deeper into Central Asia. Lott, by the way, is currently climbing Mt. Elbrus in the Caucuses, where I am heading (slowly) to pick him up. From there, we'll head into Central Asia, trying to get to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, time permitting, before meeting up with Theo, Tina, and, I presume, Cyrus near the Russia/Mongolia border.

Two points of interest, I've started an album on facebook for Mongol Rally pictures: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2006436&id=1046387715&l=69dd4&ref=share. Also, you may have noticed the blog now has the Mongol Rally map at the top and the SMS messages on the side - unfortunately these aren't live... You still have to go http://tinyurl.com/Safety3rdSMS to get the live version (The Mongol Rally people have improved the interface by the way - you can see all the messages in the list once more!), which we will try to keep as updated as the cell phone coverage on our way will allow...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Kazakh!

I breezed across the border in two and a half hours which got me into Kazakhstan early enough to enjoy the sunset on my way to Atyrau.

sunset-kazakh

However before I got to the border I got to take a trip over a floating bridge Russian style. I have to say I'll never complain about the floating bridges over Lake Washington again... For your viewing pleasure I've included a video.

video

Sadly it doesn't have the part were a giant truck charged me in my lane. Also I have yet another phone number in case anyone is trying to get a hold of me. My new KStan number is: +77774379631. I'll go back to the Russian number in a weekish.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Traffic stop @ Elista

Yesterday after Dave said goodbye to the Scarlet.

Dave

I abandoned him (His Idea) on the edge of Mt. Elbrus and headed strait NE after backtracking about 100km to use highways which for once actually were nice. 

However at upon entry into Elista I was pulled over at the police traffic stop.  Normally I tend to ignore cops but since lately they are all carrying automatic weapons and seem on edge I've been behaving myself.  What started out as a routine stop changed once they saw my passport.  Which if you haven't seen it is rather thick and suspicious looking.  I actually decided earlier in the trip that it was time for me to get a new one to hopefully cut down on transit time at borders.  So he looks at my passport for a minute and continues asking me questions in Russian which I keep just shrugging at and saying "Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Aeroporta, London" to explain my intended route.  Eventually I make a "What's Up" gesture and he points at my watch and says something which I eventually decided was 30 minutes.

Twenty minutes later a suspiciously fit "Immigration" person who spoke fluent English showed up in a taxi.  He asked a bunch of questions about why I was doing the trip, why I had headed south towards Georgia after the conflict started (Thanks Dave), why I traveled so much and then made me explain on each individual visa whether it was a work or leisure trip.  After about 15 minutes of questioning he said "Why does your country lie so much" which for the first time in a long time actually caused me to be speechless as I rained in my instinctive desire to argue politics with him since he actually spoke English.

I declined to respond to him and he let it go and then suggested an excellent restaurant in town. 

The town ended up being a real treat as it was basically little chinaville.  If anyone ever ends up heading for the Kazakh border from Mt. Elbrus I'd highly recommend not going around Elista (The highway skips it) as you'll miss out on a neat little place complete with a Prayer wheel in the Pagoda.

Pagoda

And of course the kids driving around little electric cars was entertaining in and of itself.  Basically everyone walking through got to play dodge kid since half of them had little motor control. 

kids

I continued on to Astrakhan which is on the border to KStan and crashed at one in the morning.  I'm leaving now for the border but I expect a many hour crossing so I'll be happy if I make Atyrau.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

So naturally we headed south....

So when last we left you we mentioned that we were monitoring the situation to the south of us in the Caucasus and that we were deciding where we would head next.  So naturally we headed south towards the war zone!  By war of course I'm referring to the conflict that has sprung up between Russia and it's neighbor Georgia.  But before we get to that let's go back to Odessa. 

In Odessa we met up with JCrew.  Their team name is actually "Smaller is Better" but since there is a sticker on the back of their Japanese mini-van that says JCar is in nice big letters and advertises myjcar.com.  After a day on the beach while their car was being diagnosed, we all headed off west towards Russia.  The first night as the sun set we found a campsite roadside by an old base of sorts.

jcrew_sunset 

Our car had started making a lot of noise and upon investigation - on their handy tank tread replacement ramps - I discovered that our muffler was falling off.  Dave was kind enough to get a plumbers photo of me during the process.

plumber 

We camped the next day on the coast of the Sea of Azov, read trashy beach novels, played with a Frisbee, gawked in awe at Ukrainian beachwear,  and set out early the next morning to cross the border into Russia.

border

It was a quick process requiring a mere 8 hours to drive approximately a mile.  The time wasn't actually caused by any specific issue it was more a case of a ridiculously slow bureaucratic process that oddly enough no one seemed to have an issue with. Team JCrew working on some of the paper work. jcrew_peeps

These forms were in English!  Not nearly as tricky as the Russian only forms where I had to mimic engine noises much to the bemusement of the customs officer.

We successfully navigated the border (and antifreeze licking drug dogs) and were merrily driving down the Russian roads when we carefully read the paperwork we were given and determined we actually had not been forced to purchase Russian vehicle insurance!  Partially good fortune and a bit of an ominous portent, we decided to turn back to acquire said insurance.  Dave however was sick of line waiting and bureaucracy and instead risked injury to climb a tree and get some pictures of the many fields of sunflowers lining the road.

sun_flower

We made tracks Tagenrag which is about 60km short of Rustov on Don for dinner where we found out about the new conflict in Georgia by a torrent of SMS messages from friends and family.  Upon hearing this cheerful news we popped over to the local hotel and waited to see how it unfolded.

Eventually we decided to avoid the fighting and headed east out of town towards Volgograd.  We stopped almost instantly so that Dave could climb a Russian monument.

sky_dave

Shortly there after JCrew's whip started losing power so we headed back to town to find another mechanic.  It was Saturday afternoon and everything was closed so we spent more time on the beach and debated more about our next steps.

On Monday, we took the time to get our muffler reattached (plus a car wash and a double espresso for $15) Dave talked me into heading south to drop him off in Mineral Voda so that he could go and climb Mt. Elbrus. On our way down we passed no less then 5 million cops and a couple military convoys headed south to join the "Peace Keeping" mission in Georgia.

convoy

We made Mineral Voda and then moved on to Pyatigorsk since it was a more tourist friendly town.  The down side is we are now less than 100k from the border to Georgia.  Dave is going to go hike the mountain (he should be safe up there) and I'm leaving him here and heading for Kazakhstan and relative safety.  Alex (now with valid registration but still broken headlights) will be setting off from Bratislava to head towards Russia to pick up Dave once he completes his climb.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fear and Loathing in Romania

I am somewhere in Transylvania, driving down a dark road at 90km an hour heading in the wrong direction - West. The night is whizzing past me at alarming speeds - perhaps it’s because the headlights finally gave up at some point in the not too distant past, and now I’m limited to fog lamps plus either parking lights or high beams. I’m starting to suspect the universe is aligning itself against this trip, but I shall not be stopped! The whole road suddenly feels like a wholly surreal scene from ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ (Hunter S. Thompson), except if you could dream up a polar opposite to the Shark, the effervescent mini would undoubtedly be it. The roads in Romania aren’t exactly terrible, what they are is narrow, twisting, and climbing up and down mountains. I persevere, guesstimating how much gas I’ve got left (the gauge has stopped working again – eerie reminder of India…), squinting to see the highway, and learning to pass the Romanian trucks on the twisty road. Stopping doesn’t even seem appealing at this point – I’m fully fueled by loud music, caffeine, and anger!

10 o’clock at night, passing through a little town in Western Romania. The name seems irrelevant – I can’t imagine I’m ever coming back. There’s a McDonald’s on the side of the road. Unappealing food seems a fair trade for a quick meal, plus free Wi-Fi. While stopped try yet again to reach somebody in Paris, get a hold of Maite, a girl from Paris I’d previously met traveling in Thailand. She graciously agrees to help and find out what’s actually required to fix the registration and to come play interpreter with me when I do finally make Paris (It will be Wednesday morning!). A tiny little space deep inside fights off a little of the all-consuming anger, and tries out hope. The hope’s got an uphill battle.

2.30 in the morning, still going strong. Just crossed over from Romania into Hungary. Nothing’s really changed. There’s a better road coming up closer to Budapest, but we’re not there yet – these roads are still built to Romanian standards. Shortly past the new and improved EU-style border (read: completely unattended on the Hungarian side), I attract the attention of a bored Hungarian policeman on the side of the road. He invites me out of the car and points out that the fog lights are a problem (apparently ‘problem’ in Hungarian sounds a lot like ‘problem’ in English). Not really in the mood to deal with this, so I just nod and stand there. He moves on to examine the rear of the car, upon learning that I don’t have any alcohol or cigarettes, seems to thoroughly lose interest. I drive off, with my bright lights glaring irately. I think he tries to say something else as I’m pulling away, but I’m not really inclined to listen, and he’s clearly got better things to do himself, like find people that have alcohol or cigarettes. 30 minutes later I decide to stop, get some sleep, and drive in the morning when there will be no more headlights games to be played.

Austria welcomes me with rain. It’s the first country in the Euro zone, so I’m clearly getting closer to Paris (and further from Mongolia…) They even have an exchange shop right at the border, which happily takes my British pounds, Czech kronas, and Romanian somethings. They won’t touch the Bulgarian and Albanian money. A bank in Paris would later refuse to touch them too, I think I’m stuck with some souvenirs, just in case I decide to return to Bulgaria and Albania one day. Buoyed by new found wealth, decide to actually be a law-abiding citizen and purchase a vignette for Austrian highways, since I am planning to cover the entire country. 15 minutes later, I speak with Maite, who’s checked with La Prefecture in Paris, who appears to have no interest in seeing my car, so turn right around and head to Bratislava, Slovakia for the nearest airport to catch a flight to Paris. File away the Austrian vignette as a souvenir too – sadly, it can’t be reused on any subsequent visits.

Same evening, I’m in Paris. Paris feels oddly surreal – much like Berlin and Bangkok had felt before, all cities I’ve returned to after having previously visited on the trip, so while I’m still certainly a stranger in Paris, I’m not feeling particularly lost. In the morning, I’ve met up with Maite, and am right back at La Prefecture in Sarcelle. I feel the Liberté, égalité, fraternité sign above the entrance door is mocking me… urge to kill rising! Later to be replaced with urge to drive the car to Paris just so I can smash it through the front doors of La Prefecture and park it in their lobby, maybe then they can check the VIN number on it? My favorite Prefecture employee from last time, commonly referred to as the ‘bitch in yellow’ doesn’t appear to be here – minor victory for mankind! Instead, we have a conversation with a guy who seems nice enough, albeit not at all helpful:

[me] – I need to correct the VIN number on my registration
[him] – you need to produce a document with the correct number
- I don’t have one of those
- you have to go to the archives
- can I get it from the archives?
- no, they get destroyed after 5 years
- so how do I correct a number from a car registered 27 years ago?
- you need to get the document from the archives

Urge to kill rising… Eventually, it is determined that I can get an official document from the manufacturer confirming that my car has the VIN number I claim it has, and then La Prefecture might actually be willing to change one of their precious documents. The fact that the mini was manufactured by Rover, which doesn’t exist anymore doesn’t seem to bother them, or really even intrude on their collective consciousness.

Make a trip to a new mini dealership – they politely point out they only came into existence in 2001, and can’t help me with my 1981 car. Try a few Land Rover dealers. On the way to the second one, it occurs to me that I might be cycling through the, seven is it?, stages of grief – I’m not about to let go of the anger, but I do wonder if the inclination to just ditch the car and go hang out on an island somewhere in a remote part of the Indian Ocean, where no one speaks French, falls under denial? The last Land Rover dealer agrees with all his colleagues that their company has nothing whatsoever to do with my Rover, but he does speak English, and has a friend who’s owned several classic mini’s. A few calls, and four phone numbers later, we arrive at a guy who seems to actually know how to deal with this sort of situation. Not sure what his specific connection to the Rover manufacturer is, but if he can produce a document to ameliorate the people at La Prefecture, I’ll be happy to crown him the king of all mini’s everywhere!

I wasn’t quite in the mood to take a whole of pictures during this detour, but a few sites from Eastern Europe:

A few hours before the Moldovan customs seriously ruined my day… Roadside snack while still merrily on the way East.

Forests and mountains of Transylvania

An alien spaceship was once shot down over Czechoslovakia, but the MiB have turned it into an ‘exotic’ bridge.

The mini has been left lonely and vulnerable at the Bratislava airport.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Quick update from Russia

Well we are in Tagenrog which is just east of the Ukraine and slightly SW of Volgograd.

Everything here is fine. We are closely monitoring the situation on the border to Georgia and will be deciding on our route today. We've got a bunch of cool pics to post which we'll get around to doing soon. In the meanwhile Alex has gone off to the Canary Islands to launder money.

We'll check in soon.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Geography lessons, Balkan style

I have to admit, I had only a fairly general familiarity with the geographic details of the countries of the former Yugoslavia before coming on this trip. Now though, I've actually had a chance to visit just about all of them and what have we learned? Well, I don't know how exactly the new states agreed to carve up what used to be Yugoslavia, but I suspect it went something like this: everybody got into a big room and had a few drinks. Except that the Croatia representative didn't drink as much as everyone else, so Croatia got just about the entire coastline between Italy and Albania, and the rest was carved in every way imaginable.

Ok, there are also good historical reasons for why things turned out the way they did, but I've got to say Croatia did quite well for itself in terms of scenery! Bosnia got about a 15km stretch of Coastline on the way from Split to Dubrovnik (so when you're on the highway, you first enter the Dubrovnik administrative area, then go into Bosnia, then back into Croatia, and finally get to Dubrovnik itself). Serbia and Montenegro got about a 100km chunk of coastline just north of Albania, except that Montenegro then decided to split off and took the entire coastline with them, so Serbia was now land-locked...

Well, with all this as a backdrop on our maps, we set off from Dubrovnik, aiming to get to Serres, Greece. That's about 600km, and five border crossings away, so off we went. Just for reference, I've traveled a fair amount recently, and I'm pretty sure the most countries I'd done in 24 hours previously was just 3 (UK, France, Belgium; Netherlands, Belgium, France; and Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia). So,

7:00AM: my alarm goes off... after some internal struggle, it is indeed time to get up
8:15AM: we're on the road, heading for Montenegro, 2nd newest country in the world (I believe East Timor is the 3rd, and I just missed that when I went to Bali)

We drove right along the shore of the Adriatic Sea, of course

And the Adriatic is certainly beautiful

10:30AM: we've entered Montenegro! This is a really small country, 100km across at most, should be able to get through quickly. Entry costs 10 Euro per car for the Environmental Protection tax, and an extra 15 Euro for Cyrus because he doesn't actually have insurance...


On the opposite side from the sea are the mountains


12:00PM: hmm, still in Montenegro. That 100km is what we call 'as the bird flies'. As the mini drives is a much more twisty road, with lots of other cars and the occasional road construction


But the scenery on the way, around which we are having to drive, is quite spectacular


3:00PM: this is all taking longer than I'd hoped/planned. Reached the depressingly Soviet-looking capital city of Podgorica. On thr bright side, Montenegro is on the Euro, so able to get some Euros out of the ATM in the city. Aside from this, I can't really think of any other reasons to leave the coast and come into this bland-looking city.

5:00PM: Approach Albanian border. The road has completely deteriorated into a line on aging pavement twisting its way SouthEast. The border is first announced by goats grazing on and near the 'highway.' There are no other cars heading into Albania, there's a few coming from Albania though, and they are all Mercedeses!?

6:00PM: We've crossed over into Albania. This is undoubtedly the poorest nation in Europe and I have no idea if they are even thinking of joining the EU, but I'd put their chances of joining in the next, say, 20 years at slim to none. The roadside scenerey is punctuated by run-down shacks, cows, farming equipment, and unappealing housing blocks in the cities. After some debate, decide to take a shortcut through the mountains and cross Serbia to get to Macedonia instead of going further South and getting directly to the Macedonian border. The locals point out which road we're to take, even though there's some uncertainy about Serbia. We head up - the road twists and turns through the mountains offering beautiful scenery, and, in parts, a fun drive (those would be the parts that are actually decently paved). The Mercedeses, however, continue. I cannot explain it, but somehow this is the most popular car on the roads here, and it's not a new development either - there's plenty of older Mercedeses on the road as well.


We're in Albania!

Twisty montain roads in Albania

Where we're going, we don't need roads!

11:00PM: I pass a very American looking school bus on the side of the road. Odd? The school bus apparently signals the beginning of road construction, which so far has included plenty of road destruction, and in another 5 years or so may have some construction coming too. Depends on how much money the EU gives, I suppose. Oddly enough, there's no shortage of tourist buses going across this non-existent road in the opposite direction. I can see how a beach-front vacation in cheap Albania would be a cost-effective, if not necessarily attractive option, but I don't know about putting up with these roads. This would also seem to suggest that the border will be open, pushing on...

midnight: we've reached the border, after about 50km of the autrocious 'under construction' roads. At one point, I had to actually ask a police check point which way the road went. To our great surprise, however, we have not arrived in Serbia. Instead, we've reached Kosovo. Visiting the newest country in the world seems exciting, there's a catch however - since they are so new, none of the European insurance policies cover them, so visitors must purchase a 14-day minimum policy for 50 Euro! Or we can go back to Albania, the ever-so-helpful border guard points out. Then the border loses power... Under the feeble light of the generator, we're still told that we have to buy insurance, so after 30 minutes of arguing, we've donated 100 Euro (two cars) to Kosovo for the privelege of spending about 3 hours in their country. Don't think I'll be coming back for a repeat visit - in fact, it might time to avoid any more of these brand new countries...

1:30AM: the mini has a birthday as I hit 100,000 km!


About 30 minutes later, after passing a few tank speed limit signs on the highway(!), the peace-keepers in the country decide to join in the birthday celebrations as I get pulled over by a serious millitery check point, with an armored personnel carrier, a jeep (with Polish plates?), and a guy with a machine guy in the middle of the road. They are all very formal and polite though, and speak excellent English. My only regret really was not asking for a picture! I suppose, I deserved this as I had previously driven through at least a couple of rather feeble attempts by police in Montenegro and Albania to get me to stop for an inspection, but considering that the most they did was meekly wave at me and proceeded to completely lose interest once I'd driven by, I felt perfectly justified in not stopping.

3:00AM: We are in Macedonia. I wish I had something to say about Macedonia - we had been planning to stop for dinner in the capital city of Skopje, but things are going a bit slower than we had expected. Instead we simply drive through the city as it lies still and quiet in the middle of the night and head off towards Greece.

4:00AM: Cyrus is leading our little convoy, Liz is asleep in the passeneget seat. He first swerves a bit to the right... and corrects it. Then he swerves to the left lane, I honk my horn, he corrects again... Soon we pull over and agree that we need a break for a bit of a nap.

7:00AM: back on the road, sun's coming up, feeling anxious to get to Greece!

9:00AM: We are at the Greek border. And this is 9:00AM Greek time, so only 8:00 in Croatia, so still under 24 hours. The border crossing is trivial, and we're into our sixth country in under 24 hours! I think this should be the next adventurists challenge - see how many countries people can visit in a 24 hour period. Bonus points for anyone who comes within 3 countries of the winner, but doesn't use the Balkans!

9:30AM: To celebrate our arrival in Greece, we stop at a roadside cafe for a bit of breakfast. As the conversation turns to just how bad the tea is, Cyrus accidentally tips the table and spills two cups of scaling hot tea on Liz' lap. A long string of expletives, some ice, and a water hose later, we're on the way to the nearest town to have a clinic get a proper look at the burn.

Liz seems fairly upbeat for someone who just had some extremely hot tea spilt in her lap

The clinic determines it is, in fact, a first degree burn, but since we got here quickly, they can clean and treat it, and there shouldn't be any scaring. This all takes place in Polykastro, a cute little town, which seems fairly excited just to have visitors. Apparently the recent conflict in Kosovo had rather discouraged tourism in Northern Greece.

3:00PM: Feeling rather tired after the lengthy drive we arrive in Serres, where we meet up with Cyrus' friends, and I run into Jimi, the classic mini fan + mechanic extraordinaire by a completely stroke of luck. He and I spend roughly the next 8 hours making the mini more amazing than it's been in a long, long time!

PS. In case anybody is wondering, the fact that I'm posting stories of our adventures in Yugoslavia from 10 days ago does not mean that I've moved on past the whole incorrect VIN number debacle, or released any of the anger and frustration I've accumulated on the issue (in fact, another post coming on all that soon). It just means I'm stuck in Paris, waiting for the paperwork to be processed in London and returned here, with nothing more to do than hang out at a McDonald's and take full advantage of their free internet facilities. The car's feeling lonely sitting at the Bratislava airport parking lot. ETA on rejoining the car is currently unavailable. Normally, I'm being told, they'd have the documents back from London by Tuesday. I've been insisting, in every way and language possible, on speeding up the process, so maybe we'll get something tomorrow, but nobody seems particularly bothered to be in a hurry...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Black Sea Beaches

Just wanted to chime in with a quick update from Odessa. Slepak is busy caning the Mini back towards France to resolve some paperwork issues - apparently he's also gotten the leak in the gas tank fixed so it doesn't smell like petrol all the time as well! We're hoping it'll get resolved relatively quickly and give Slepak time to catch back up to Cyrus and me around Sochi. In the mean time, it's making the trip map look quite hilarious: http://tinyurl.com/Safety3rdSMS Cyrus wishing the Mini good luck

Me pledging my allegiance to the Panda

Perhaps the last time we'll ever see the Mini (or Slepak)

So Cyrus and I decided to putter around various Black Sea beaches. From Galati (on the Romanian-Moldovian) border, we decided to head south to some Romainian beaches we'd pasted the day before. We had taken a ferry across the Danube the night before and decided to take the longer drive around to do something different. Unfortunately the signage around Galati and Braila leaves a bit to be desired and we ended up making a big loop and missing the beaches before ending up in Galati again. Cleary it wasn't driver error.

Unfazed we decided to press on to Chisinau, the capitol of Moldova, which is supposed to be a bit off the beaten path, but quite nice. Plus Cyrus had flirted pretty heavily with the border guard the night before trying to acquire insurance for the Panda and thought she might be coming back on shift. Slepak had taken the Lonely Planet with him, and Chisinau's tourist infrastructure is a bit lacking. But after a bit of driving around in circles, checking out all the BMWs and a Ferrari in this the poorest of European nations, we found a place for the night. In the morning we checked out their version of the Arc de Triomphe

and the White House

We then got on M14 - a well paved, lightly used highway that headed straight for Odessa. After 100km or so, we discovered why it was so lightly used - it passes through Transnistria. To quote wikipedia, "Transnistria is a breakaway republic within the internationally recognised borders of Moldova, with the official status of an autonomous territory. Although not recognised by any state or international organisation and de jure part of Moldova, it is de facto independent and functions like a state." I had remembered vaguely reading something about this in the Lonely Planet - now in the Mini somewhere between here and Paris - but the first indication that this was going to be in interesting part of our trip was the guy with a AK standing next to an armored personnel carrier in the middle of the road. After a little bit of BS-ing and a couple of Marlboros we headed to the second APC checkpoint before entering Transnistria proper.

The road stayed good and we decided that the best thing to do was drive straight and fast to the Ukraine - and don't turn off on any of those side roads with secondary check points. Heck don't even make eye contact! Finally we reached the border and discovered that "functions like a state" forgot to include the word "corrupt" in there. The border guard gave us crap for not having exit stamps from Moldova and said it would be 29 Euro each to leave Transnistria. Or could go back the way we came, go around and through an actual Moldova/Ukraine crossing for an extra 400km or so. So Uncle Ben Franklin came to the rescue and we went headed back out of the people customs office to the car customs office. As the guard there is leading us to "extortion room" Cyrus has a brilliant revelation, hands me our passports and tells me to get far away. He successfully convinces them that his Abe Lincoln and fat stack of Bulgarian currency are all we have left after we've been fleeced by the people customs guard. They take the fiver, leave him the Bulgarian (no one will change this stuff) and we head for the oasis that is the Ukraine.

Again we head into the city with no map at rush hour and see how things play out. We find our way to the train station where we find that there are no tourism offices in all of the Ukraine and curse Slepak again for having the Lonely Planet. Fortunately we run into another Mongol Rally team, Smaller is Better. They hooked us up with a map of the town and some leads on hotels. They're also running the rally in a small truck their company exports from Japan - in cargo containers!

If When the Mini finally makes it back to the East knowing knowing these guys will probably help get it across the Pacific. But that's a problem for future Slepak. Cyrus and Dave are headed to the beach for a little R&R.



Action Update: Slepak has discovered the car doesn't need to be in Paris to get the registration fixed, just him. So he's leaving the Mini to party it up in Bratislava with the Yugos while he wings to Paris to fix stuff up. With luck it'll all be straightened out shortly and we'll head east again!