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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Azerbaijan - the land where nothing makes sense

We set out for the Georgia and hit the Georgia-Azerbaijan border around mid-morning. We ran into a few other Mongol Rally teams, the first we'd seen in a few days. It was great to catch up and hear stories from the road.


After a "short" (3 hour) processing time at the border, we were in Azerbaijan. Everything was different. We started out convoying with two other teams but soon left on our own, unable to stomach actually going 50 km/h. The other team (the Fire Fairies) warned us that there were a number of cops on the road in Azerbaijan so we should go the speed-limit. Although the area of Azerbaijan we entered in was really rural and fairly poor, they did have decent roads and a lot of signs that indicated that there was radar surveillance. They did not, however, have many signs indicating what the speed limit was, and the limits would change quickly from 90 to 50 to 70 to 30 km/h. Judging by the lack of efficiency in other areas of Azerbaijan, we were pretty sure that the radar/police system was not well-synced. We were wrong!


We were pulled over by the (crooked) cops and they tried to tell us that we were speeding. We were taken into a radar station with 5 cops in it and they showed us a video, where we were going 87 km/h in a 90 km/h zone. They tried to communicate that since there was a hut nearby it was a 50 km/h zone. They then told us that we had to pay a $400 fine. Azeri cops are notoriously crooked, and basically they were trying to shake us down for money. The cops were using my basic bargaining technique of "good cop - bad cop" to work us over. Some of the cops were pretty nice and we almost got off, but there was one guy that held onto Sebastien's driver's licence and wouldn't bend. Eventually (and in the interest of time) we agreed to pay them a "fee". We learned the lesson that we shouldn't go into a police station, because the more people that are around, the higher their service charge.


The funny part here is that the two teams we were supposed to convoy with passed us!


We kept on driving, watching the speed limit, and obviously railing against how stupid the radar laws were and how backward the country is when they employ so many cops to try and screw people over rather than investing that same amount of money in something important - like education!


Meanwhile, we went through another radar checkpoint that flashed when we went under it. We were pretty sure we hadn't been speeding, but were a bit nervous since the light had flashed. We closely followed a truck and surely enough, when we passed the checkpoint, a cop tried to flag us down. We decided to keep going and see what happened. Eventually 2 cops pulled us over and we played stupid foreigner, told them we were students and kept pointing at the stickers on our car and saying the three words we know in Russian "please, thank you and good". These 2 cops were much nicer since they weren't surrounded by their friends, so we managed to get off with less of a "service fee". 


We spent the remainder of the day and some of the night driving, often painfully slow at the speed limit (seriously, going 30 km/h for a few stretches). It made no sense, the roads were new-ish and completely fine, but the speed limit would change arbitrarily - lower, higher for 50 meters, and lower again. 


We finally arrived in Baku around 1am and tried in vain to find the ferry station. In the end, we paid a taxi driver to take us there, and it was a good thing that we did because we never would have found it on our own. We followed a dark street and eventually rolled up to the ferry stand. We saw a number of other Mongol Rally teams there who were on the ferry departing that night. We were excited because we thought that there was a chance we could make the ferry. We were introduced to Ismael, a "fixer" for those wanting to take the Baku-Turkmenbashi ferry. He basically acts as a translator/go-between between the Baku ferry people and other passengers. For the low, low price of $15usd/person he will try to make the ferry process work. However, it will still be long and inefficient. We waited around and Ismael inquired with the ferry authorities about whether or not we could make the boat. He gave it a 60% chance. It would have been amazing if we could get on the boat, and out of Azerbaijan. 


Sadly, the ticket guy was not around so we couldn't get on the ferry. We were pretty traumatized, but as often happens on the rally, there were other people that were worse off than us! One team had spent 12 hours at the Georgia-Azerbaijan border and then another 12 hours at the ferry terminal only to be refused entry onto the ferry. One of their team members had gotten his Turkmenistan visa in Istanbul, and the consular officer had made a mistake on  the visa dates so the consular officer changed it by hand. The Azeri ferry authorities wouldn't respect that visa, and so he was booted off the boat. 


After accepting the fact that we couldn't get on the ferry and completely exhausted from driving all day, we followed Ismael to a nearby hotel that he recommended. We spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the price and getting nowhere. Finally, we were led to our rooms, down a hallway that was reminiscent of The Shining. We were introduced to our room, the decor of which can only be described as "Soviet Chic". 


We were called back to the sea port the following morning, and informed that the ferry was delayed, we spend the day in Baki looking around and admiring the petroleum-tainted views of the Caspian Sea. At night, we went out with Team Chevrolet, a great bunch of guys, and ended up at a gay karaoke night club where we proceeded to wow the azerbayjanis with our prowess at singing "White Snake".


Nursing a hangover the following morning, we went back to the terminal and informed that the ferry would leave the following day!


Day Three in Baki, crazy town, crazy people, sharing an apartment with team LEAMongols, had a great Iftar Dinner and rolled into bed.  We're heading back to the ferry to meet everyone at 11 am per our fixer, hopefully we get on!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tajikistan

Our original plan was to conquer the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, but it looks like we'll have to save that for next time. There is potentially a war breaking out, concentrated in the exact region we wanted to drive through! Chances are we could probably go through without anything happening to us, but we're going to take the safe route and skip it. Here's what the BBC is reporting: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-18965366

Pictures from the trip

It's much easier to upload our pictures to our Canuck the Dots Facebook page than to wait for them to load in blogger, so take a look here!


Thanks for all your emails and comments, we love getting them!

Cappadocia to Tbilisi


After a safe night’s sleep at Ali’s, we headed towards Goreme, in the heart of Cappadocia. It happened to be Sebastien’s birthday that day, so we were planning to take it easy and enjoy. After a few hours of driving (5 hours=light driving day), we found ourselves amongst the magical “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia. We hadn’t booked a hotel in advance, so we spent some time running around checking out our options. The prices in Cappadocia are high compared to other parts of Turkey, so we made sure to mention that it was Sebastien’s birthday to get a “birthday discount”. During the course of our search, the birthday discount yielded a few free water bottles, and at the end when we finally found a place (Flintstone’s – highly recommended!), they gave us free lunch! Our room was carved from a cave and complete with our own Turkish bath. The hotel also had a pool. We ventured out to Goreme town for a few birthday drinks and meze, sticking mainly to rooftop patios to enjoy the tremendous view.

The next morning, we woke up at an ungodly hour to go on a balloon ride over Goreme park. Neither of us had been on a hot air balloon ride before, so we were really looking forward to it (despite Sebastien’s birthday hangover). We watched the sun rise over the ancient cave dwellings of Cappadocia, and enjoyed the view and the ride – which was much smoother than we thought it would be! We were in the balloon for about an hour, at varying heights. Our pilot took us up to 1000m and we could feel our ears pop. Hot air balloons are crazy because there isn’t really steering, you can just move up and down with the air currents. Our pilot managed to bring us down in the exact the area he was supposed to, but our basket almost tipped over in the process. Sebastien thought that was the best part. 

We finished the trip with a (Turkish) champagne toast and headed back to our hotel. After a few hours of sleep we were sufficiently recovered from our 4:30am wakeup time to hit the road. Our aim was to get to the Black Sea and take the highway along the coast as we made our way into Georgia. When leaving Cappadocia we saw the first ralliers we had seen since Istanbul! We gave them a friendly honk as we passed them (yes, our Perodua is capable of passing people), and didn’t see them again.

Our drive from Cappadocia to the Black Sea was one of the most diverse days of driving we have had yet. We travelled through rocky, dry landscape, farm towns, crazy mountains with windy roads and ended at the Black Sea just as the sun was setting. Turkish roads are (thankfully) well-paved, but the day’s drive was pretty tiring – long, and literally full of ups and downs and curves. It was also almost 40degrees until we got to the mountains where it cooled down quite a bit.

We drove along the Black Sea for a spell before picking a random small town to grab dinner in and set up for the night. We picked Tirebolu, described in Lonely Planet as a “chirpy port town”.  We drove down the main drag and pulled into what looked like a nice spot on the sea, with pictures of enticing kebab in the window. It is Ramadan right now, and we pulled in exactly when the family who owns the restaurant was breaking their fast for the day. In our minds we thought we would get a delicious fish dinner, but what we got was miles better. They invited us to join their family for iftar, and we had a full meal cooked by the lovely lady of the family. At the table were Sebastien and I, “Turkish” Sebastien, Grandpa, Mom, and a family friend, Turgut. Our meal was out of this world, way better than any food we had eaten in Turkey so far! It started with soup and salad and progressed into a main course with rice, eggplant, beef, potatoes and a tzaziki like thing. Although (once again) it was hard to communicate since our Turkish is so limited, we managed to all understand each other, crack jokes and really enjoy ourselves. They made us feel like we were part of the family!

Grandpa spoke a bit of French and reminded us of Sebastien’s Grandpa. He is super spry and was moving around tables and chairs like nobody’s business. Eventually more and more people joined us and we showed them pictures of Ottawa and our families. We met more family and friends and eventually the “kids” showed up and we played an epic game of beach volleyball. We went for a dip to cool off afterwards. The sea water was perfect – really clean and a great temperature. We stayed up until midnight hanging out, playing volleyball and drinking chai, and camped right near the restaurant, facing the beach.  One of the guys we met was a police officer and he said it was totally fine.

The family was so nice and so welcoming to us. They wouldn’t let us pay for anything (dinner, water, tea) and even gave us their phone numbers in case we needed anything at night (they lived in apartments facing the beach right across from where we were sleeping). We finished the night with hugs, pictures and invitations for them to stay with us if they ever came to Canada.
There aren’t words to describe how generous their hospitality was. Sebastien and I were completely blown away. Even the next morning when we woke up, we had to ask ourselves “did that really happen?”. We really have experienced so much kindness during our time in Turkey that it makes us rethink our notions of hospitality. Sebastien and I think we are pretty decent hosts, but Turkish hospitality takes it to another level. It is so kind-hearted, unassuming and people really expect nothing in return. Sebastien and I agree that our time in Tirebolu was the best experience of the trip so far.

The next morning with the sun beating down on our tent, we woke up early and hit the highway again, driving towards Georgia. We made pretty good time on the road, but the border took a few hours to get through. At first, we spoke with a border guard and he said he would let us skip the line. Sebastien and I grabbed an ice cream to celebrate, but when we went back to try to get through – he waved us to the back of the line. His friends were around, so I guess he had to look like he wasn’t playing favourites.
There were a few other Rally teams waiting in the queue so I stayed with the car while Sebastien jumped into the sea. Along with a few of the ralliers, he climbed a huge 20ft rock and they dove off of it into the clear, beautiful water below. Sebastien regretted the fact he hadn’t packed his scuba gear.

Eventually (after a few extra minutes of explaining to the border guard at Georgia that Perodua is actually a car brand)  we made it into Georgia and were greeted by what we soon realized is a pervasive scene in this country – cows walking in the middle of the road. Also, the road was immediately much worse that Turkey.
A few kilometres after the border crossing, we hit one of Georgia’s most happening beach towns – Batumi. We enjoyed a delicious seafood meal along with the (rocky) beach and amazing water. We realized that we need to start listening to our “Learn Russian in the Car” audio lessons because people in Georgia do not speak much English and the few words of Turkish we picked up are absolutely useless here.

We relaxed on the beach for a few hours before setting off again. We were planning to take what was supposed to be a slight detour to Akhalsikhe to see the Sapara monastery on our way to Tbilisi. The road wound back through the mountains, setting us on scenery very similar to what we had seen in the mountains of Turkey, but with roads that were not as nice or as wide. After spending a few hours driving and not getting very far before dark, we pulled over to camp for the night.

Today we woke up and had our first real experience with off-roading on the trip. Thank you Georgia. On the map the road we took is indicated as a “divided highway” but in fact, there is a huge chunk of the road that is not even paved. These are winding mountain roads, and we could only drive about 15 km/h. Tweety (our car) took a bit of a beating, but we are happy we have a sump guard on. The car performed marvellously and is still running smoothly although there is now a weird rattling sound. We think it might be a rock between the sump guard and the bottom of the car. We are proceeding as is.

Eventually we arrived in Akhalsikhe, a cute town in the mountains with a fortress overlooking it. We stopped for lunch at a pub and had some kebab and Georgian dumplings. I have no idea what they are actually called, but basically they are like humongous soup dumplings. Everything was delicious. The ladies at the bar were entranced by me. I was telling Sebastien that my Russian roommate from the Czech Republic told me that during communism, they always used to show Bollywood movies because they have a family-friendly storyline, not like the Western smut of those days. My Russian roommate said most people used to watch them, and even when she was young she always wanted to have a sari. Shortly after I told this story, the ladies came over and took pictures with me. They then put a Bollywood movie from the 60’s on the television and were loving it. Before he walked into that bar, Sebastien had no idea he was walking around town with a celebrity, but I tried not to let it all go to my head.

After lunch, we took a walk up to the fortress but it is under renovation, so sadly we couldn’t see the inside. It was still really impressive from the outside. We then tried to find the Sapara monastery, and after asking five people for directions, we finally found the road to the monastery. The monastery was 10km of driving on a completely rocky, pot-hole filled road that would have taken an hour to get there and an hour of driving to get back (minimum, and without counting any potential car problems), so we decided to head towards Tbilisi instead, and stick to highway driving.

On the road to Tbilisi we stopped at a roadside monastery (Green Monastery), which was small but interesting and very serene. We were surprised when we walked into the base of the tower and saw human bones on an altar. We couldn’t read any of the signs, so we weren’t really sure what was going on.

We spent the evening in Tbilisi and will be driving to Baku, Azerbaijan tomorrow to try to take the ferry to Turkmenistan. Tbilisi is an awesome city with great restaurants, vibrant nightlife and beautiful vistas that blend the old with the new.

We bought an awesome CD for 2 lira in Turkey that will be appropriate for that portion of our trip – Chris de Burgh and his song “Don’t pay the Ferryman”  because apparently the ferry guys try to make people pay bribes to have the ferry leave sooner!

We just broke 4,000 miles on the trip and are looking forward to the next 6,000!!

(We planned to post pictures but the internet is deathly slow, so we will post them at the next stop!)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Istanbul, Pamukkale and en route to Cappadocia


Istanbul has a huge selection of delicious restaurants, so we sought some guidance on where to go. We ended up at Pazarsade, one of the top 5 restaurants in Istanbul on Trip Advisor. Although we only called an hour before dinner for our reservation, we managed to get on their rooftop patio. We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived, and we were greeted with a beautiful vista of Istanbul – complete with views of Sultanahmet, the Istanbul skyline, bridges and the water. The wait staff was fantastic and the food was even better. We indulged in traditional Ottoman (not Ottawan)  cuisine, though we don’t think the sultans ate quite as well. We had some wine, which tasted oddly bubbly, and the waiter told us that all Turkish wines are carbonated. It was also at this restaurant that Sebastien and I discovered we actually like Turkish delight, when it’s done right.

Turkish Delight-ful!

Aya Sofia at night
We then took a stroll down to the Galata Bridge and enjoyed the touristy but entertaining show of a guy serving Turkish ice cream. 

The ice cream guy even gave me a chance to try and serve alongside him, but I didn’t have quite the showmanship he did! We arrived at the bridge to greet my namesake, the Aruna Cafe, which we were recommended by a number of people. It looked to be a fine establishment!

Trying to get that Turkish ice cream

The next morning, we headed to see the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, both amazing, and rightfully recognized as some of the man-made wonders of the world.

Sultanahmet

Inside the Aya Sofia


After having seen the main attractions of Istanbul (though there a many more awesome ones!) we were ready to hit the road towards Pamukkale. Even though we were driving on a Saturday, when you would expect less traffic, getting out of Istanbul was still an adventure and involved some of the classic traffic encounters such as people cutting us off, reversing when they missed their exit, creating four lanes when there are two, etc. We did manage to navigate out of Istanbul without getting lost, so we were very impressed with ourselves.

Turkish people are so friendly, which was a real change after a few days in Eastern Europe (although we did get a very nice note on our car in Bulgaria that said “Welcome to Bulgaria! We know about the Rally and want to wish you luck!”). 

Everywhere we go (even though we only know three words of Turkish) people will go out of their way to help us, offer us tea and coffee and show genuine interest in what we are doing. They also think that Sebastien looks like Tom Cruise (surprise, surprise!). The map on our car is really helpful to describe our journey and we generally get the same reaction of “Wow!” and “in that car??”. Our drive towards Pamukkale was through some interesting scenery and we finished the day about an hour away from our destination. The hotels we encountered were expensive (60 euro for a roadside hotel?? Really??), so we ended up just asking if we could camp near a gas station/rest area off of the highway. The people there were great, and showed us where to set up our tent and let us use the other facilities. And, of course, they gave us tea! J Our neighbours at the camp site included two geese and a rabbit. The geese were our alarm clock this morning, but luckily they don’t wake up as early as roosters. We had a good night’s sleep, a delicious breakfast and were en route to Pamukkale.

Pamukkale was a double whammy of awesome ruins and really cool hot springs/travertines.  We spent a few hours wandering around and relaxing, before heading in the direction of Cappadocia. (Pictures are on another memory card, and will be uploaded later!)

We didn’t end up on the road that we meant to take, but we still ended up going more or less the right way, and through some amazing scenery. We got a good view of what Turkish farmland looks like and dodged quite a few tractors on the road. Since our camping at a service station was such a success yesterday, we thought we’d try it out again! The first place we stopped one guy agreed to let us camp until his manager said no. Then we stopped at another gas station, where the guys informed us that there were a lot of “yilan” and we didn’t want to camp in the grass.


Our new friends on the way to Cappadocia!
Yilan are SNAKES! Scary cobra snakes based on the pictures that came up when our friend Ali googled “yilan” on the internet. However, our new friends showed us a spot that was not snake filled and said we could camp there. They then proceeded to ply us with tea, pepsi, sweets etc. They also showed us pictures of their family, described their Kurdish background to us and had Sebastien talk to their children. It’s amazing how you can communicate with other people even when you don’t speak the same language. They also have wifi which they are kindly letting me use! I’ve now been informed we can sleep inside on a couch, it just gets better and better ;)  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Belgrade to Istanbul



We made it to Belgrade and spent a few hours sightseeing. The city is really awesome and has a cool vibe to it, with its mixture of Soviet, modern and historical chic. We went up to Kalemegdan Fort for a great view of the city (and a local beer) and spent some time meandering through the Belgrade's bohemian quarter and enjoying the atmosphere. We grabbed a delicious pizza lunch at one of the many outdoor cafes and were then on our way to Sofia.

Pictures below from Belgrade





The drive through Serbia was beautiful. A lot of the landscape was rural farmland, but then the highway wound through mountains with interesting rock formations and tunnels. It really was fun to drive on the windy roads, and the views were spectacular.
Eventually we arrived at the Bulgarian border. The scary-looking border guard on the way out asked us “Droga? Heroïne? Mafia?” and then burst out laughing. Clearly in our Perodua Kenari, the only illicit substance we smuggled through was my mom’s curry powder. He was very friendly and we gave him a postcard of Ottawa that he liked. We waited in line a bit in no-man’s land before we got through the Bulgaria border. The lady border guard was having trouble figuring out what exactly we were driving (they are used to Mafioso Audis and BMW’s). Her reaction to our car was “that is very strange”. Clearly her English was not the best, and what she really meant to say was “AWESOME”.

Driving through Serbia




We were overoptimistic about our chances of actually making it close to Istanbul, we forgot to factor in time at the border and time change along with the slower (but lovely) drive through the mountains of Serbia.

We made it to Sofia then looked around for a place to stay. We followed signs for the red star hostel and arrived in a dark, barred off alleyway.  On the wall was a hand written note, scribbled in red ink, “dear guest, please go here...” with an address.  We cautiously went to the address, where a giant non-descript wooden door waited for us.  We rung the bell and an old woman answered in a Bulgarian accent to come up.  We walked in, everything was dark.  The lights turned on with the familiar buzz or fluorescents, filling the halls with a cold, eerie light.  We walked up a few flights of stairs, seeing differently barred doors, storage gates and crumbling bricks wondering what we had got ourselves into.  We finally arrived to the 8th floor, where we once again had to get buzzed in.   All discomfort disappeared as we walked into a lovely little hostel, well decorated, where we got a private room.  We then walked downtown on the Pedestrian street (they close the tram line and their public transit becomes a Pedestrian bar street after business hours, which is an awesome concept) in time to grab a bite to eat and enjoy the outdoor pedestrian street full of bars and restaurants that were full even on a Wednesday night!  The bar across the street from where we ate was a Fetish night club with silhouettes of naked women and red lights.  (S - Aruna didn’t want to check it out...)

On Thursday morning we set out for Istanbul. The drive through Bulgaria and Turkey was pretty, but uneventful. Lots of sunflower fields! Sebastien and I started to listen to our first audiobook, which made the time fly by.

At the Turkish border, we had to do a little running around (I literally ran between the border guard and the cashier to get our visas) and we had to buy insurance at a separate building.  They eventually they let us into Turkey, and that border guard got a postcard too.

We were hoping to get to Istanbul in time to process our Turkmenistan visas so we went straight to the Turkmen Consulate, only to find out it was closed! Apparently, we had to get there between 9:30-12:30. It’s annoying because we have an invitation letter that says we can get a transit visa on arrival at the Turkmen border after we take the ferry across the Caspian Sea from Baku. BUT the Azeri embassy unilaterally decided to change their visa policy and request that people have their Turkmen visas in their passports before getting on the ferry. This change meant we had less flexibility, and also that we had to take time out of our stay in Istanbul to deal with visa issues.

Foiled by the Turkmen embassy, we headed to our hotel. Our awesome friend Paul (we stayed with Paul and Emily in Antwerp) travels a lot with his job and has racked up a bunch of reward points. He was nice enough to offer to book us a hotel stay during our trip and booked us 2 nights at the Holiday Inn in Istanbul.  The only thing we had to do was find it.

Driving in Istanbul is an adventure. Googlemaps does not help. Most of the street signs don’t match Googlemap directions, or there are no signs. Our map of Istanbul wasn’t big enough to include the area where the Turkmen Consulate was and our hotel so we had to do some guessing. Apparently, we are not very good at guessing when we don’t know where we are going.

We learned that one wrong turn or missed exit will send you over bridges and around in circles. Traffic on the main highway is intense. Lanes are a suggestion. Cars in front of you will reverse (one nearly hit us!) if they miss their exit. If there is an ambulance trying to get through, people will move out of the way for the ambulance and then fight to chase the ambulance, hoping to get to their destination more quickly. On the upside, people are nice and friendly when you ask for directions. Although they all usually tell you to go straight for a bit and turn right, no matter what you ask them.

All this to say, it took us 2 hours to finally find our hotel – which should have been maybe a 25 minute drive from where we started. We were very happy when we got to the hotel and could park our little Perodua.

The hotel is great. We lounged by the pool and enjoyed the sweet suite (thanks Paul!!!!  There’s a freakin’ soaker tub next to the bed! – S) after our intense day of driving.

Today we headed back to the Turkmenistan Consulate to apply for our visas. We got there at 10am and had to fill out some forms after some intense explanation to the one consular officer that spoke English.  Sebastien had to run to the bank to do a money transfer (and after running two km’s following the classic Turkish “my friend, go straight then turn” directions, I hopped in a cab and tried to explain to my unilingual Turkish cab driver what I was up to.  Much gesticulating and yelling later, we found the bank - S) and we went back this afternoon to pick up our visas.  

We were lucky, we ran into another Rally team and one of their team members’ invitation letter had his passport number wrong by one number and the Turkmen Consulate wouldn’t process his visa. The Turkmen Consulate also told the team that either way the visas wouldn’t be ready until Monday. So, although we had to make a few trips (we managed not to get lost the last 2 times!!) we were happy that at the end of the day we managed to get our visas and do some sightseeing in-between, mainly when I dragged Sebastien to one of my favourite places – the bazaar!

In other news, we’ve driven about 2,500 miles already!





 Grand Bazaar!


Happy with our Turkmen visas!


Off to hang out some more in Istanbul and head to Pamukkale tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Calais to Croatia


We arrived in Calais and set off towards Antwerp, where we were meeting up with our friends Paul and Emily, who kindly agreed to host us for the night. We were hungry, so stopped in Brugges to grab a bite to eat. We were hoping for moules et frites, but we hadn’t realized there was an hour time difference between England and Belgium, so were too late to get into any restaurants. We had some delicious kebab instead. I am sure we will have MANY more on this trip!

We finally arrived to Antwerp, and Emily and Paul welcomed to us their lovely apartment, which is now affectionately known as the rebel stronghold. It’s in a older heritage building, and really nicely renovated on the inside. Paul showed off some of the marvellous German engineered furniture, and we were both suitably impressed. Paul was also very excited to equip us with some essentials for our trip, but we convinced him we didn’t need the flashbang grenades he had on-hand. We chatted and headed to bed for the night. In the morning, Paul and Emily made us a lovely breakfast, and introduced us to a Dutch speciality – sprinkles on your toast!

After a whirlwind tour of Antwerp, we set off for our long drive to Prague, which was even longer because of all of the traffic we hit in Germany. We stopped in a random German town for lunch, but since it was Sunday, the only restaurant open was a Greek restaurant! Sebastien had kebab again (surprise!) and I had the most delicious moussaka in the world. Our waiter at the Greek restaurant was Greek-German and had actually studied English in Canada for a year, six months in Halifax and six months in RED DEER of all places.

We arrived at my friend Klara’s place in Prague quite late on Sunday night, but Klara and her puppy Mia were very excited to see us. Klara fed us some home-made and home-grown Czech pickled sausage and vegetables, and warmed us up with her pear flavoured slivovice. Gotta love the Czech Republic.
Nazdravi time with Klara

The next morning we slept in, which worked out because it was horrible and rainy in the morning, and by the time we got to the old town the sun had come out! Sebastien and I did the quick tourist walk through Prague – from the Museum, to the Old Town Square, across Charles Bridge and up to Prague Castle. We went up the south tower of the bell tower in the Prague Castle for an awesome view of Prague. It was so amazing to be back in Prague, every place reminded me of the great memories and friends that I made when I lived in the Czech Republic. I wish we had more time to enjoy it and that I could have shown Sebastien all the other places that I love in Prague, but we had to move on.


Old Town Square




Prague - Prague castle in the background

Charles Bridge

Our car with Mia and Klara

The Party Rock team arrives to Klenova Castle 
We met Klara for lunch and she took us out for some typical Czech fare. Sadly, we did not eat any smazeny syr while in the Czech Republic, which means we’ll have to come back again just to enjoy it!


On Monday afternoon we made our way to Klenova Castle for the “Czechout” party, the other launch party for the Mongol Rally. Teams camped out and partied in a castle, and luckily, it wasn’t raining! The theme of the party was “Carnival of the Macabre” so there were some pretty good costumes running around that night. I dressed as a carnival monkey and Sebastien was a lion tamer (he says monkey tamer, but it isn’t accurate). We were very popular because we brought along a Canadiana prop in the form of a shotski. Teams loved it! The Czechout party was great, but we made the mistake of camping near the tent where the rave that was going until 5am was happening. We knew we had a long drive ahead of us, so we didn’t stay out quite that late. Also, the Rally is like 80% dudes, so it makes for an interesting atmosphere when it comes to partying. But, atleast the line-up for the women’s bathroom is short.

Yesterday, we were planning to make it to Belgrade, but didn’t quite have it in us! We drove through Austria, Slovenia and Croatia and are currently about 6km from the Serbian border. Yesterday’s drive was really beautiful, through mountains and small hamlets. In Sebastien’s words “this looks kind of like Gatineau with better roads”. The roads (or “tarmac” as Ewan McGregor in a Long Way Round would say) were amazing. And the speed limits are 130km/h! So even though you feel like you are speeding, you’re still going much slower than the majority of the people on the road. As we drove south, the weather got warmer, the sun came out and all was good. We stopped for dinner in Zagreb and had a peek around the town. General consensus is that are barely any fat people in Croatia. Only had a minor driving incident when Sebastien accidentally turned into the tram lane instead of the car lane (follow the blue arrows in Europe!) and we had to jump a curb to get out of the way of an oncoming tram. Our little Perodua handled it just fine, and we figure it was good training for Mongolia.


We are now headed out to Belgrade (hoping to make it for lunch) and Sofia (maybe dinner?). We’ll try to get to Istanbul tomorrow to process our Turkmen visas and spend some time sightseeing.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Launch!



After we picked up the car from our friend William – Nithya met us at home to get her keys and see us off! We relied on Googlemaps to get us out of London, which caused a little bit of stress, but we managed to make it. Sebastien was getting used to driving on the left-hand size of the road and was having some difficulties accurately judging how far he was from the curb. While he did well 99% of the time. There was one point where he clipped the curb on my side. We heard this tick-tick-tick sound and all of a sudden the front left hubcab flipped up, hit our windshield and flew over our car. Luckily, there was no damage, due partially to the fact that our hubcaps are the size of paper plates, and probably about as heavy. When we stopped at a gas station to check it out, we noticed that all of the hubcaps are held on by zip ties! We are estimating that none of them will survive to Mongolia. They’re just for show anyway!

We drove to some pretty English countryside and finally arrived at Goodwood camping groups, down the street from where the Launch was happening the next day. It had been raining for days, so the campground was a bit swampy. We arrived when the rain had paused for a while, so we were able to set up our tent while it was somewhat dry.

Teams were milling about getting to know each other, so we joined in for a bit, but it was rainy and we were pretty tired so we didn’t stay up too late.
It then proceeded to monsoon during the night, at which point we realized that our tent was not, in fact, completely waterproof. We managed to stay warm and dry while sleeping, but our bags were not quite as lucky! We hadn’t unpacked much into the tent, so it wasn’t TOO bad.

We woke up the pitter patter of rain, and decide to head into town for a proper English breakfast before we set off.  After we had filled up on eggs benedict (delish) and an “All-Day” breakfast that included deep-fried toast, we headed to Goodwood Motor Circuit for the festivities. It was rainy, but people were still out and about.

Our team had a few problems registering because they had incorrectly tracked our deposit, but we managed to get that all sorted. There was a live band playing, as well as a demonstration of Mongolian wrestling. They even got some of the Ralliers to get in on the wrestling action – one of them was named Spud and he was parading around in a leopard print thong. He displayed some fierce heart when it came to wrestling, and even patented a new move – wrapping his legs around the Mongolian wrestler to avoid being thrown to the muddy ground. This lasted for a spell until the Mongolian wrestler finally laid the smack down on Spud and threw him to the ground. Another Rallier was from an American team that has a totally suitable (i.e. CHEATER) vehicle for the Rally – a Ford truck that somehow managed to get vehicle approval. While not perhaps totally in the spirit of the Mongol Rally (not adventurous!)  I think it’s going to be good to have them around in case we ever need a tow!

After a few of these activities – we were finally off! We circled Goodwood Motor Circuit and headed off to Dover (after we asked someone to make sure we were going in the right direction).  We stopped to fill up our gas and realized we had no idea how to open the gas tank. Ten minutes and a few teams laughing at us later – we found the latch and we were on our way.
The drive to Dover was pretty. We saw a lot of Rally teams passing us, but I’m sure that’s something we will be used to by the end!





We enjoyed a cold beer sailing across from Dover to Calais, and were on our way to Antwerp.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Time to hit the road!

Yesterday was an awesome day!


We met up with Chris Kang who treated us to lunch at his office. He works at Marks & Spencer so they have delicious, subsidized food. His office building is VERY nice.




Sebastien sports Tourist Chic while Kang sports London Chic

Sebastien and I did a walking tour of London where we saw all the big things you are supposed to see and take pictures with when you come to London. He was very excited because I bought him new Ray-Bans for his birthday! Yay!


Yesterday evening we had the chance to catch up with some friends who live in London. It was great!


 Sorry we didn't make it to Google breakfast Kim!

Amy looking lovely as always!

Reminiscing with Laura about the FGWDP. You know who you are.


And of course - big thanks to my cousin Nithya for being SO AWESOME. Along with her roommate Polina, they picked up our car and made sure everything was in order before we arrived. We also stayed with Nithya and she introduced us to some delicious cheesecake brownies.

Thanks Nithya!

This morning, we finally got the first glimpse of the car we are going to get intimately acquainted with during our trip. This fine man is William, of William Dyett Racing. He installed the sump guard on our car and checked everything out to make sure we were ready to go! So friendly, helpful and all-around amazing. If you live in London and need a mechanic or to buy a used car - he is your guy!


Now the car has been picked up, and Seb has experimented one time with driving on the left-hand side of the street in a right-hand drive car. We have just arrived back to Nithya's and are now headed to Goodwood (2h) drive away  for the launch of the Mongol Rally tomorrow! 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

London

It's so crazy, after planning for the Rally for almost a year - finally we are here and it's all becoming a reality!

We had a good flight over - the plane was half full so there were lots of places to stretch out and sleep. Our cab driver was really friendly and very intrigued once we told him about the Mongol Rally. He promised he would advertise us on his Facebook and said he was very good at marketing!

My cousin Nithya is kindly playing both hotel proprietor and tour guide. The location of her place is awesome for walking around. She had to work, but dropped us off for some food at the George, which apparently is London's only surviving galleried coaching inn. I don't really know what that means, but the signs told us that Dickens and Shakespeare used to hang out here, so we thought it was a decent place to try.


We decided to sample the "local" cuisine and eat some pub food. Delicious fish and chips and pie, but I don't think I need to eat boiled, flavourless vegetables for a while.


We went for a little walk over the London Bridge and looped back over the Tower Bridge, which is looking all fancy for the Olympics.


We experienced many seasons of weather here in one day - alternating between sunny, hot, cold, windy, rainy or some combination of all of them. 


Sebastien knows how much I love jumping pictures, so he came up with the brilliant idea of doing a jumping photo log. I will take a jumping picture every day (could be of me or of him, or with both of us, or with other people, anything goes) and then I'll compile them at the end of our trip. Jumping to Mongolia! Here's Day 1 - London!


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Huge thanks to Loudmouth Printhouse!!

We are very excited to announce that Loudmouth Printhouse is providing the decals for our car!! Now we can pimp our Perodua and make it look all fancy once we get to the UK, so we are very happy.




Loudmouth Printhouse is a local (in fact, 2 blocks from my house) artist-inspired design and printhouse. Their website description is very accurate, they say that they function a lot like your Grandma, they do everything in-house and they do everything from scratch. They are meticulous, patient and will love you despite all your shortcomings. 


I've used them before for personalized clothing items I had made as gifts and it was a great experience! They explained the different options available, helped me with some technical difficulties and produced what I needed quickly. I was very pleased with the products I received and so were my friends! Plus, it's always awesome to support local businesses.


I'm not the only one who loves their stuff, a wall mural produced by Loudmouth Printhouse was the People's Choice winner for January in the international Creative Awards contest run by printer/cutter supplier Roland DGA. More here.


Loudmouth Printhouse has the capacity to design, print, cut, screen print, heat-press, laminate, mount, emboss, bind, foil, or laser engrave your project, all under one roof. They can provide die–cut vinyl decals, bumper stickers, brochures, posters, spray paint stencils, pinback buttons, booklets, screen printing, carbonless forms, business cards, flyers, banners, sandwich boards (sandwiches not included), book binding, auto magnets, backlit signs, web design, and so much more. 

I highly recommend them for your design and print needs! 


We are very grateful that Loudmouth Printhouse is helping us out for our journey. We are sure our attractive vehicle will make us the envy of many on our adventure!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Visas - done!

After two trips to the Mongolian embassy on Thursday - we got our Mongolian visas! From what I ascertained, when I dropped our rush visa applications off on Wednesday with the consular officer's assistant, she forgot to give them to the guy. When I went in on Thursday morning to pick them up, he looked very surprised. He then advised me to wait a few minutes (presumably so he could just process the visas), but they had "technical difficulties" with the system in Ulaanbaatar. Unsurprising, and somewhat expected so I wasn't really fazed that I had to go back in later that day.  


The important thing is we got our Mongolian visas! I then went back to visit my buddy at the Azeri embassy and gave him my passport back. He said "for sure you will get visa by Tuesday". I said "how about tomorrow?" In a stunning display of efficiency, they did in fact process it by the next day.


So, our VISAS ARE DONE! Well, except for our Turkmenistan visas which we have to apply for in Istanbul since we only have a 5-day transit visa and we'll have a better idea of our timeline then. 


Our visas - the numbers:


Numbers of Letters of Invitation needed: 6 each - Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia
Number of visas applied for (and received!): 7 each - the countries above plus Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and minus Turkmenistan
Number of visits to embassies and consulates in Ottawa: 12 - VisaHQ took care of the visas we had to get in Washington, DC
Grand total cost of all of this visa fun (ouch): approximately $1,075CAD each


Now we're ready to rock! Next project to tackle: packing!



Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Visas, visas, visas

The nearly never-ending saga continues! I picked up our passports from the Azeri embassy - where somehow Sebastien's visa was issued but mine was not and dropped them off at the Mongolian embassy. Our Mongolian visas (which have an efficient process when you pay double for them!) should be ready tomorrow! Then I just have to take my passport back to the Azeri embassy and hope they issue my visa quickly. After that, we will FINALLY have all our visas. Just in time to get on the plane on Tuesday.


The Azeri embassy wasn't all bad, the consular officer gave me a map of Azerbaijan and told me I had to visit the tomb of Timur aka Tamerlane (a Central Asian conqueror) in Uzbekistan. While odd that he was touting visiting a different Central Asian country than his own, I still thought it was friendly of him!


Side note: Apparently, there was a legend that whoever disturbed the tomb of Timur would be punished. In 1939 the Soviets decided it was a good idea to exhume Timur and two days later the Nazis invaded the USSR. According to my research on Wikipedia, apparently the Soviets reburied Timur with a full Islamic ritual in 1942, which happened right before the Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad. Moral of the story - don't mess with dead conquerors who promise wrath will be unleashed upon you if you disturb their eternal slumber.