Mongol Rally: Crossing Europe, Turkey, and Russia’s Sort of Terrifying Border

Welcome to the Mongol Rally!

As I shared on my previous post, we spent months planning this Mongol Rally adventure, and it is finally here! Each of my team mates and I flew to London to do our last minute planning and have a good night out with friends who wanted to give us a proper send-off before our 10,000 miles journey!

Mongol Rally 2013
Photo by the adventurists.com

The following morning we were off to Bodiam Castle in East Sussex to meet with the rest of the teams departing from the UK and to have the official StartUp Party!

Mongol Rally 2013

Mongol Rally 2013
The cars parked on the grounds of Bodiam Castle

It was quite an experience arriving at the castle ruins, and seeing over 170 small, shitty cars parked in front of it – all covered in vinyl decals, markers, flags, and everything in between.

We quickly dressed our car, Lizzy, with her Drama of Llama decals and our sponsor decals before heading out to registration and partying!

Mongol Rally 2013

Mongol Rally 2013

I have to tell you that the party at Bodiam Castle has been one of the most surreal parties I’ve been to. You’re inside the ruins of a castle surrounded by a moat, being served mead and other alcohols by medieval peasant characters, with a classical band playing beautiful music, and an arrange of crazy rally people dressed in all fashions and non-fashions.

The night continued with all sort of craziness and ended with a hay fight… yes, hay!

On the morning of the 14th, we had a quick ceremony and around 11:30 am, we crossed the start-up stage with our car, and we were waved off to our adventure.

Since Stephen and I are too chicken to drive on the right side of the car (yet!) we left Alex to drive for us in the UK and the first few countries until we hit an empty spot to practice our right hand driving on the right side of the street, and most importantly, our manual shift skills!

Mongol Rally 2013
We make a good team, right?!  Especially when wearing our awesome ExOfficio gear.  From left to right: Norbert, Stephen, and Alex

In summary, our first-day driving went excellent and it looked like this:

  • Breakfast in Bodiam, UK
  • A quick drive to take the ferry from Dover, UK to Calais, France
  • A waffles and beer stop in Brugge, Belgium
  • Dinner stop in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg (New country for me!)
  • And finally, we slept in the car in a park area along the Autobahn close to Mannheim, Germany.  We knew the chances of sleeping in the car during the rally were high, but we were not expecting to do it on the VERY FIRST NIGHT!!!  The hostels in Mannheim were too expensive, and since we are cheap bastards, the car looked very appealing to us.

On another note… that was FIVE countries in ONE day!!  New Record!

Mongol Rally
Our first rally oops!

Once in the Czech Republic we met again most teams on the Czechout Party at Klenova Castle. If there’s one thing the Mongol Rally knows how to do well, is parties! That party was too crazy!

The following morning, whether in a lucid state or comatose from the party the night before, everyone started spreading out on their own routes.

Ohhh… also, at the castle grounds, we had our first bubu of the rally… we drove our left rear tire into a ditch!! Ha! It was no big deal, though, since we managed to pull it out easily. A bit of practice for the rougher roads ahead!

Off to Explore Some Eastern European Beauties

After the Czechout Party, we made our way towards Prague – one of my favorite cities in all Europe. This was my third time in Prague, and as expected, it didn’t fail to impress me (again). I won’t go into detail here because I already wrote about it.

After leaving Prague, we did some capital hopping on our way to Budapest – hitting Vienna and Bratislava in a span of a few hours. Did you know that Vienna and Bratislava are the closest capitals in the world? And that Bratislava is the only capital in the world to border two countries?

We didn’t have the chance to explore more of both cities, but luckily I did visit Vienna previously on my Eurail Trip – so I can highly recommend you to visit it.

Vienna, Austria

Prague, Vienna, and Budapest are considered to be sister cities. While Vienna is the more serious and modern one and Prague is the bohemian popular sister, Budapest can be considered to be the younger sister who is competing for beauty and attention.

Driving Without Vignettes

We reached the Hungarian border from Slovakia, and here’s where things got interesting. This was our first “monitored” border, so we handed our passports as asked.

The officer immediately asked in a strong Hungarian accent for something that sounded to me like “vinaigrette”. What?! Turns out he was asking for a “vignette” and we didn’t have it.

We didn’t know if it was real or a scam, so I immediately went to Facebook and asked readers if such a thing existed. Immediately I received a couple of responses vouching for the existence of the vignette.

As we learned, countries like Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and a few others, require you to buy a vignette (or a permit/tax) that lets you ride the highways in their country.

We crossed Austria and Slovakia without one… Oops! We didn’t know about it. Now, he was requiring us to buy the Hungarian one and to provide the Slovakian one.

The Hungarian one we could buy at the border for $15, but we had no way of providing the Slovakian one since it was already 10 pm and the office was closed.

The officer refused to let us pass without one until at one point he calls Alex to get off the car and takes him away from it. He tells him to stand behind a van (awkward), from where he will make his bribe offer.

The officer told Alex that if he paid 30 Euros, he would “provide a paper” and let us through, of 20 Euros to let us through without a paper. We chose the latter, and off we went to Budapest!

Budapest, Hungary

The next day we spent walking around the city, and in my case, revisiting my favorite sights. One thing I didn’t do before that I didn’t miss this time was to bathe at the Széchenyi Thermal Baths.

This is the most popular sight in Budapest and it is the biggest thermal bath in all Europe. Just looking at the huge neo-baroque building that houses the pool will give you that impression immediately.

Thermal Baths

Don’t miss the baths (like I did the first time)… I mean it! And try the 40 degrees Celsius pool. Ohhhh soooo goooood! I wrote about my experience in Budapest when I visited it the first time. You can read it here and see what Budapest is all about.

From Budapest forward, our plans became a bit messy…

Racing Towards the Black Sea

You would think that after having the UK Launch and the Czechout Party, we would all be on our own without any other events until the finish line. We were wrong.

There were two more. A pit stop party in Sibiu, Romania; and a checkpoint beach party in Constanta, Romania. We didn’t make it to the former, but we made the best to try to reach the latter, and what a day it turned out to be.

We were in Budapest, which is over 850 km away from Constanta, and we only had about 12 hours to get there before the party started. Even if we took the fastest way, it would already take us like 15 hours.

It was night already (of the day before the party) and we were not sure we would make it in time, so we let the idea rest and revisited it later.  In the meantime, I took a nap (which actually became a few hours of sleep) while Stephen and Alex went out to a Pub Crawl.

At about 3:30 am they returned, we revisited the idea of the beach party, and in a few seconds, we decided to leave immediately towards Romania.  We would do our best to make it!

Since I was somewhat rested (and Alex and Stephen were in no condition to drive – aka, drunk!), I took the wheel and started driving at 4 am. Our journey should have taken about 15 hours with a few stops along the way, but we were oh so wrong. (We’ve discovered that we are always late for everything, so if something will take 3 hours, it will take us 4:30!)

The first few hours, while in Hungary, went pretty smooth. Good, fast highways and two comatose teammates made for a serene drive in the twilight of morning.

Driving the Mongol Rally

Things changed as soon as we hit the border with Romania. From there on, there was a lack of highways and an abundance of farm trucks. How frustrating!

We were against the clock, and the 20 mph trucks were not making our journey any easier, or faster.  The scenery was beautiful, but we were yet to be impressed by Romania with the Transfăgărășan Road.

After 7 hours driving, I passed the keys to Alex (who was in decent condition to drive now), and he took in charge the challenge of driving the Transfăgărășan.

Romania Transfăgărășan
Doing what I do best at the Transfăgărășan Road in Romania.

The Transfăgărășan is the second highest road in Romania and it has been described as “the most beautiful road in the world” (by Jeremy Clarkson, host of Top Gear). Is it the most beautiful? I can at least say that it is the most beautiful I’ve been to so far!  I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

Transfagarasan 1

Transfagarasan Road in Romania
Really cool, isn’t it?

Just a bit of background, though.  The Transfăgărășan was built as a military road, crossing the Southern Carpathian Mountains between the highest peak in the country, Moldoveanu, and the second-highest, Negoiu.  It is 90 km of twists and turns that are not meant for a weak stomach.

Obviously, with the Transfăgărășan being so twisted, we had no option but to lose time by going slower (and safer) on the mountain. But, we enjoyed it a lot, and we were happy to have taken that road, which I would catalog as one of the best sights in Romania.

Not only did Alex mastered those curves, but Lizzy (our car) took it like a champ!  You go, Lizzy!

Lizzy in Romania driving
Here’s our champ in the beautiful Transfăgărășan Road in Romania!

We finished the Transfăgărășan (Geez, how many times have I written this weird name in this post!), and it was time for Stephen to drive. We had already been on the road for 17 hours, and we still had 3 more hours to go.

This was a looooong day. Driving from 4 am till 1:30 am when we finally reached the beach party at its peak time (even though we were sooooo late). We were exhausted, obviously, but we stayed up all night until well after sunrise.

Sunrise

At about 6:30 am I got my sleeping bag and crashed on the beach, along with dozens of piled bodies in the same state.

After the party we took a well-deserved day off in Constanta. We literally stayed on the beach all day –like bums– and slept again on the beach with no tent, just sleeping bags.

It was funny waking up early in the morning the next day to find Stephen sleeping on a beach chair a few feet away from his original spot. It happened that in the middle of the night, two stray dogs cuddled next to him and stayed there until he noticed.

He moved away from them and settled on the beach chair, but what he didn’t notice was that one of the dogs left with his shoe! Stephen was shoeless.

Off to Turkey we Go!

The following day we made our way from Constanta, Romania to Istanbul, Turkey – crossing through Bulgaria.

The day was pretty much event-less, except for Lizzy’s first maintenance check (we had to feed her some oil, but she deserved it), and the fact that I could make a Coca Cola can with MY name!

Coke with my name

When we reached the Turkish border with Bulgaria, I got off the car to present our passports and the car registration. Then the immigration official asked for the vignette. Again, we forgot to buy the vignette to use the highways in the country.  My face went blank!  Oops!

Poker Face meme

My first reaction was to play dumb and ask, “What vignette?  We don’t have that!”

She went on, “You had to buy this at the entry border.  You can be fined for not having it.”

I just gave another blank stare.

“I can sell it to you know”, she continued, but you’re not supposed to buy it here.  It costs 5 Euros.”

I turn towards the car; “guys, do any of you have 5 Euros?”

“No”, they replied in unison.

I asked the officer, “Do you accept US Dollars?”

She shook her head. “It would be 10 Lev.” (Bulgarian currency)

Again I turn to the car, “Do you have Lev?”

They shook their head.

I looked back at the officer with an I-don’t-know-what-to-do face.

Baffled Dog

This was not a well-transited border crossing, so there was absolutely nothing there and we were in the middle of a forest.  No ATMs around, nothing.

She looked at me and signaled me to get closer.  Oh, no… I almost expected to get bribed.  Instead, the said very quietly, “Go, but don’t tell anyone.”  And off we went to the Turkish border.

The Turkish border was the first one we crossed where we needed to do “major” paperwork, but it wasn’t painful. First, we got our visas for $20 each. Then we got stamped in. Then we had to buy car insurance for $35, present it to immigration, and finally have our car inspected and approved to enter the country.

Sounds like a lot, but it was pretty easy and everything took about 30 minutes. And off we were to Istanbul!

Mosques in Instanbul

This was my second time visiting Turkey. I already knew where to stay in Istanbul, so we headed straight there to drop our bags and enjoy our day.

I love this city so much that I revisited many of the major sites like the Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque, walked around Hagia Sophia, and a few others. I definitely couldn’t miss eating Baklava again at Karaköy Güllüoğlu. Seriously, this is the best Baklava in the world!

Baklava

One of the places I failed to visit on my first trip to Istanbul was the Basilica Cistern, popularly known as “the sunken palace”. I was highly impressed by it! I love it when I revisit a city and still can get to see new things I didn’t know about before.

Basilica Cistern

This cistern, considered to be one of the most magnificent historical structures in the city, was built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 500s AD and it consists of a rectangular underground space with 336 marble columns, most of them different since they were taken from various old buildings from the Roman Empire.

The reason why it is called the Basilica Cistern is that there used to be a basilica on top of it.

What makes the cistern look so interesting and beautiful is the lighting and the reflection of the space in the shallow water.

Also interesting are two column plinths with Medusa’s face.  Not only are they strange enough, but also the fact that one is placed on its side and the other upside down makes them even more mysterious. They really are quite mysterious.  I mean it, don’t miss this place when in Istanbul.

Medusa at the Basilica Cistern

Cappadocia from Above and Below

While in Istanbul, we had the chance to meet another rally team during breakfast – they are Jeremy and Henry of The Mongol Way Round.

Cappadocia, Turkey

By chance, they had the same route as we did through Turkey and Georgia, so we decided to convoy and spend the next 1,000+ miles together until our routes split apart.  Now of course, our driving could turn a bit interesting.

We left Istanbul about noon, with hopes of reaching Cappadocia by night.  Twelve hours later, even with almost non-stop driving, we were still too far from reaching Cappadocia; so we decided to set camp on a random sunflower field at about 1:30am.

The following morning we woke up early to finally reach Göreme in Cappadocia at around noon.  Since it’s Cappadocia, we decided to stay at Shoestring Cave Pension, which is a cave hostel (a typical experience to be had in this town).

Our first stop, the Kaymakli Underground City. I had visited Cappadocia and a few of these sights before (and wrote about them here), but it was fun to see them again with my teammates and the guys from the other team.

Cappadocia underground city

We hired a guide to take us through the underground city (highly recommended in order to appreciate it).

We had the luck of hiring a guide who not only was good with his explanations, but he almost didn’t care what we did or where we headed inside the tunnels and chambers. So basically, we became 5 little kids in a playground.

We passed through various chambers, climbed into holes where tourists don’t normally go since they are not quite easy to climb out from once you jump in (and a cut on my left knee is a testament of this), and went through narrow, unlit tunnels with just our flashlights and desire to spook someone.  It was fun!

Fooling around in the underground city

We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in Devrent Valley, also known as Imagination Valley due to all the figures you can visualize from the curious shapes created by the erosion on the stones.

The road to reach Devrent Valley was closed due to construction, but since we are in a rally and not in a typical vacation, we passed the barriers and made our way to the valley.

While we weren’t the only ones bold enough to pass the barrier to reach the valley, we practically had the whole valley for ourselves for most of the time (only a handful of people passed by sporadically). We climbed up to a point where we could see far into the valley looking towards the sunset.

Cappadocia, Turkey
Devrent Valley Sunset

After about an hour of peaceful chatting and fooling around, we made our way up to a hole on the side of the mountain – it looked to be a 3500 years old house/living space.

It wasn’t that easy to get up to it, but we managed to enter the space and look at the sunset from a better vantage point through the natural window in the cave.

The following morning we woke up at 4:00 am to do the hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia. The morning was a bit chilly, but we had the most perfect weather you could ask for.

Cappadocia’s landscape is surreal when seen from the ground, but it is even more impressive when you can see it from the sky and witness the expanse of rock formations spread for miles all around you. We could see the valleys, the Uchisar Castle that crowns Göreme, and the mountains far beyond the region.

Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia, Turkey

This is a MUST DO when you come to Cappadocia.

We had the luck of having good wind pushing us towards an area called Love Valley. The reason for this name is because the rock formations eroded in such a particular way that they look like, um, penises.

I had seen the valley before from the ground, but like the rest of Cappadocia’s landscape, seeing them from above gives you quite a bit of a different perspective.  They do look like penises.

It was time for us to hit the road again for a full day of driving.  On the way, we stopped at a gas station to discuss how far we would drive for the day, and that’s when we came across a few very friendly (too friendly, I would say) Turkish men.

One of them saw Stephen and without any hesitation, he pinched his nipple! What the hell?! As if that wasn’t enough, he got into our car and browsed everything we had. He played with Alex’s iPad, my solar charger, looked at pictures in our cameras and looked over all our equipment.

He was just curious about what we had and we were doing and didn’t intend any wrongdoing. Of course, he didn’t want to leave without a “present”, so after asking for us to give him stuff (including signaling our phones, camping equipment, and other electronics) we gave him some moist towelettes and bid him goodbye.

By sunset, we drove to a random village in the middle of nowhere and camped deep in the mountains. It was very windy and cold, but it was a beautiful prairie landscape.  There was nothing around us except nature.

As the sunrays began to shine the following morning, we were woken up by the sound of hundreds of sheep bells. A shepherd was walking his sheep down towards the village and happened to pass next to us (or, we happened to camp next to his usual route).

He shifted his attention from his sheep to us, as if we were some kind of weird object he suddenly discovered in his farm (well, we were).  He walked towards us and in a very friendly manner said hello to everyone.

He spoke to us, but we were lost in translation and could only communicate through hand gestures. It was fun though since we all laughed at each other trying to figure out what we were saying.

The shepherd helped us quickly with a few directions for our onward journey. He also did the “curious search” of our camping equipment and car, and somehow expected a present. We didn’t have anything to give him, so we gave a few spare Liras (Turkish currency) and bid him goodbye.

Mongol Rally

The following day was uneventful since it was a full day of driving, but it was fun to see the now usual puzzled looks from people passing by as they see two dirty rally cars together.

In order to reach the border with Georgia, we had to cross the high mountains of Kaçkar, Karçal and Yalnızçam, and the lake Tortum Gölü through the road D950.

Turkey mountains

Besides the Transfăgărășan Road in Romania, this has been one of the most beautiful drives we’ve done so far!  The road followed the river and winded between the mountains through the valley.

Each turn we took showed a different view that ranged from steep cliff drops and canyons to wide expanses filled with enormous mountains.

Turkey is an amazing country, and unlike many other countries, even the major highways are interesting and beautiful!

Beautiful Georgia and its Sort of Terrifying Border with Russia

We kept convoying with The Mongol Way Round Team all the way to Georgia (the country, not the state). While the border crossing had a long queue, it was quite simple and painless.

We were expecting to pay over 160 Liras (about $80) in fines because we crossed various tolls without paying them, because again, we were driving without vignettes. Apparently in Turkey you have to pay 11 times the toll fee as a fine if you cross it without a vifgnette. But, they didn’t ask us for anything as they checked our car out of the country.

Tbilisi, Georgia

If we thought Turkish drivers were bad, Georgians were way worse, and so were their roads. As soon as we crossed the border, we noticed the difference: potholes everywhere, dogs and people crossing the street at random, and the worst overtakes.

It was dark in the night already, and we were amazed how the roads connecting the major cities with the capital were completely pitch black and only had a single lane for countless kilometers (pretty much all of them).

We drove till 3:30 am or so, until we reached Tbilisi and pulled over a random street and slept till the early morning, when we bid goodbye to The Mongol Way Round, as they continued their way to Azerbaijan.

We didn’t know whether to stay in Georgia or to head straight to Russia. The weather was not that good and we had no idea what to do in the city. After a quick google search, we decided to stay and give it a try. What a good choice it was.

Tbilisi Church
Church of the Red Gospel

Around Tbilisi we visited The Ruins of the Red Gospel, the remains of what was once the tallest church in the city (destroyed during the Armenian-Georgian conflict); the Narikala Fortress, impressive ruins of a fortress built between the 4th and 17th century; Metekhi Church, one of the oldest medieval churches in the city which still stands proud on a cliff; and a few others.

I seriously enjoyed Tbilisi and at the moment I can say it is a city I would happily return to see more of it. It is pretty cheap too.

Narikala Fortress
Narikala Fortress

The following morning we woke up late (as usual) and finally made our way to the Russian border. This was the most dreaded border for us. During our planning stages, we weren’t able to find accurate information regarding the status of the border. Is it open? Is it closed? Can we cross or is it only Georgians who can’t cross?

Apparently, there’s one of the crossings from Georgia to Russia where you could get arrested if you try to cross it (since it is located in one of those undefined territories between countries).

We never tried that one, of course, and we made sure to use the one heading towards Vladikavkaz, Russia which seemed to be the best of our options. (Upon further information, apparently, the ones who get arrested on the other border are Georgians trying to cross to Russia. But I can’t confirm that information.)

Georgian mountains

The road to the border was both beautiful and painful. Georgian landscapes look almost unreal. The mountains, even on a rainy day looked almost as if taken out of a Lord of the Rings movie, or New Zealand (if we want a degree of reality).

There were a few fortress ruins on the way up the mountain, like the Ananuri Fortress, as well as a few beautiful scenic spots.

Ananuri Fortress in Georgia
Ananuri Fortress

Now, I said it was painful too. Well, the road was the absolute worst one we had driven so far. We had potholes the size of the car (I’m not kidding) that were full of water and deep enough to get the bottom part of the car wet and fuming.

It looked like we were riding an old Soviet road, so it was in huge disrepair if we can say the road still actually existed and we were not just driving on rough gravel.

We finally arrived at the border, but before actually reaching it, we pulled over to the side of the road to hide most of our electronics and important stuff.

We had heard horror stories from other ralliers who were completely robbed by the police (this was in Bulgaria though, which has a police mafia) so we wanted to at least take a precaution in Russia, which has a reputation of crazy, bad policemen.

At 6:28 pm, once everything was hidden, we queued at yet another border crossing and waited till it was our turn.  (We spent our time playing cards in the car)

Playing cards at the border

Ar about 7:30 pm we crossed the Georgian immigration to enter no-man’s-land and stayed there for about 1:30 hour until it was our turn to enter the Russian immigration process.

I have to admit this was the scariest border crossing I’ve ever done. It wasn’t bad, but it was terrifying in all senses. You pull your car in the entry building where they have stairs and scaffolds to look over your car, as well as pits to check its underside.

Immigration officials and policemen look at you constantly with penetrating gazes that petrify you. Surprisingly I didn’t see any guns or firearms, so at least our chances of getting shot (as we all imagined) were quite narrow to none.

Russia-Georgia border
Image of the Russia-Georgia border from eng.kavkaz-uzel.ru

It was my turn to present my passport to the immigration official.  I handed it as usual, but it was not inspected as usual. The official looked at it with the most untrustful face, testing every page to make sure they are not tampered (even the seams), and checking the visa with a magnifying glass to check its not fake.

After a few minutes, I’m allowed to go into the country, but the process is far from over.

Now is the car’s turn to go through customs.

In between processes we had a fun moment, though. When the officer opened the car’s trunk he found our water pistols. He first looked at them suspiciously, but after testing them and seeing they actually shot water, he laughed at it. I think he thought; “these fool westerners”.

Another officer gets Stephen’s passport to double check it.  While Stephen might hate it (somewhat), we are “lucky” he has an unusual last name: Schreck. (As in Shrek, the movie)

The officer looked at Stephen and said; Schreck? Seriously?!

Stephen replied with a quick, yes.

And with a big laugh, the officer says, Welcome to Russia.

But, the fun wasn’t over for him. He soon told another guard to check his passport, and as he did he asked, Who’s cat?

Stephen replied,  “He’s cat, he’s donkey,” pointing at me and Alex respectively.

They all laughed.

For me, it was a moment of relief in a tense environment.

More paperwork was done and at 11:02 we officially entered Russia and drive all the way till the nearest city to sleep in the car.

We were headed to Moscow, but little did we know that our plan would change drastically in the following 24 hours…


Read the next post about our Mongol Rally experience!


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5 thoughts on “Mongol Rally: Crossing Europe, Turkey, and Russia’s Sort of Terrifying Border”

  1. Google search for the win this time =). When I was coming home from China the people at the airport weren’t sure where I was from. I have a Dominican Passport so I asked them to pull out a map and I had to show them the tiny island that I’m from. It took a couple officials and people checking my passport.

    1. Ha!! I know how that feels! Coming from Puerto Rico, many people around the world don’t know where the island is, so I either have to show them on a map of make a reference to the USA and Cuba to give an approximate location.

  2. I loved reading about your border crossing from Georgia to Russia. We are British and a visa for Russia costs lots of money. We went to St Peter Ferry Line in Helsinki to St Petersburg. We were allowed to stay for up to 72 hours.

    I went to London twice to sort out 2 day transit visas for Belarus. We flew to Lithuania and got to Vilnius train station before 8am like our timetable told us. Though the train had left at 7am. We had to buy bus tickets and it left at 9am. The border was very challenging. It was even worse to leave Belarus to go to Poland. They looked very much at our passports and visas for ages. The border wasn’t wheelchair accessible in Poland.

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