Doing the Mongol
Picture the scene: An assortment of 15 or so overloaded hair dresser hatchbacks making their way through the backroads of Goodwood stop and get out for a confab in the middle of a country lane.
In an area of about 2 square miles, we had managed to lose a field. And fields aren’t really known for their darting about. You may be a little surprised to learn then that every team here would start out on a journey to Mongolia the next day. The fact that some would eventually make it through desert, mountains, rain and snow is nothing short of a miracle for the unprepared & unconcerned traveller. Here is the story of LRDG’s 2009 Mongol Rally.
It all started the night before. This is handy as it means I can leave out arriving too late for the overnight ferry across from Belfast to Liverpool a few days before that. Although I did manage to blag another ticket for free so I guess the spirit of the rally had gotten underway in Belfast. Once in the vicinity of London with friends we cleared up almost the last of the visas – or so I thought. On the eve of the race we headed across to Oxford to collect the third member of LRDG from his day job and hooted it down Goodwood way. eventually we got over our geographic embarrassment mentioned above and cracked open the emergency supplies of Buckie in a field in England. Here’s a photo. No it’s not a 12th field.
One of the first impressions we got whilst surveying the other teams’ steads was the preparation. There were mechanics kits, survival equipment and even guys seemingly at the wrong event running around in combat fatigues. This was either the Mongol Rally start line or a rerun of D-Day. Above all though I vividly remember huge, huge numbers of spare tyres splayed over roof racks everywhere. We took one in our boot. BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE IT’S SUPPOSED TO GO. Ahem. Apart from that I made an unfortunate Scottish team endure a nonsensical Buckfast-fuelled monologue and then satisfied with my work, passed out to be woken by the morning Sun in what was to develop into an annoying habit. Note to self: Must sleep on West side of car.
So night fell the morning rose and we set off in group after group from the race track. By this stage we could see the extent to which other teams went to pimp their ride. Viking Long boats, Batmobiles and fire engines all made notable appearances. By comparison we looked every bit the Sunday drivers with our 1 litre year 2000 Suzuki Alto (1 woman owner). Whilst feeling a bit under-dressed at the ambassador’s dinner there’s definitely a divergence of Mongol Rally philosophy evident here – are you meant to be balls deep in the latest survivor wear or are you not just expected to turn up without so much as a map? Cause that’s what we did.
Well, kind of. In truth we used a map as far as the end of Europe. Europe likes to give off the impression of being ‘developed’ by building as many ways of getting from A to B as possible. So we took a map in order to be able to not get lost on the roads as opposed to avoid getting lost trying to find them, which again we strongly feel is what’s meant to happen especially on the Asian end of the trip. Anyways we spent the first night in a petrol station outside Brussels getting routinely woken by curious motorists. Brussels itself seemed nice, in a kind of nondescript European sort of a way. We had difficulty conceptualising the tunnel that ‘goes through’ the heart of the city. We had wondered how it managed to teleport us back to where we entered it. A look at the map explained – it’s a circular shape, and just turns left very very slowly…
And on through the heart of Europe. Germany to it’s friends. Jerry to us who refuse to let the past go. I do like the country though. And it’s very practical – if you had to pick any one national stereotype to be pretty much the geographic centre of Europe then it’d be the Germans. Great aid to getting around efficiently that. And then the Sudetenland (sorry) for Czechout, the party that sees all 3 launches (UK, Spain & Italy) converge before we all go our separate ways en route to Mongolia. But not before we pick up our first fine – for not purchasing a Czech motorway vignette. Still being in relative civilisation we decided not to argue.
Tearing through the peaceful little Euro backroads until we hit the meadows surrounding Klenova Castle was a lot of fun. A night early we got settled in to the pre-party and drank into the night with some new faces.
Czechout was in general a British festival dug out of a field in the UK and planted in the rolling countryside of Eastern Europe. The usual festival hippies and professional smiley people wadded around selling their alcohol and making everyone play their games. But mostly the alcohol bit. Some teams got their party pieces on the go – a bouncy castle, a garden party complete with leather three piece-suite and our own very successful 3-man water bomb launcher. Man those things can go. Also it was good to see and hear some proper rally stories even at this early stage – a few teams cars were wiped out already, and some more had just about made it to Czechout and were busy reversing the polarity and what have you in their engines in order to attempt to continue the trip.
In our knowingly car-care ignorant condition, we felt a smug sense of satisfaction in our blind confidence that our thing would ‘just work’. Although we had made one mod since leaving blighty – a cable tie to stop the exhaust from rattling. Onwards and upwards.
As regards the music bit of the party it was, well it did the job I guess. Could have been better. The Eastern European trance fest we had been promised turned out to be a bit more Chas n Dave then we would have liked to be honest. There was other music for other tastes, including a ska band. I don’t pretend to know anything about that. The tea lounge was a very nice though. And true to form I bumped into a troop of pongo officers and the inevitable Naked Bar consequences that entails. Great guys though. What what.
Thinking about it now anyone we met at Czechout we never seen again. Huge numbers seemed to be travelling 90% of the trip across Russia. Which is fine if you like looking at conifers I guess. The next day we checked out of Czechout and scooted back for Bavaria via the scenic route. Nice part of the world the Czech Rep. Doubling back we headed for the Eagle’s Nest – Hitler’s Kehlsteinhaus outside Berchtesgaden. A rapid climb later and I had my Band of Brothers moment, emerging on the top to look out northwards over the tree-lined Bavarian landscape. A great sight.
Fuck just flicking through these is getting me in the mood for next month’s Balkan trip and a winning combination of football and yomping over a few more Ultras.
Having come off the beaten track to tick this worthwhile box we put in an overnighter through Austria, Slovenia and Croatia to arrive in pock marked Sarajevo, Bosnia for a battle nap at another petrol station. Disappointed to have to miss out on a perhaps the most beautiful part of Europe but the truth is we’ve been before and will do many times again so it held no value on a rally that covered so many spots we may never see again. On crossing the Bosnian border we discovered our first mistake – no green card, the free filling out of which would have saved us a bit of quid in the Balkans at least. Turkey onwards it’s a different story with each country doing their own little ‘tax’ on car insurance with the notable exception of ever the europhile Georgia. Passed the Caspian and insurance (or more likely the illusion of it) doesn’t seem to exist.
The heat in Sarajevo in the height of summer was pretty uncomfortable when you’re trying to catch up on lost sleep. Apart from that, and a surprisingly cheap pizza meal in that Bosnian icon, the Holiday Inn, our time went smoothly enough. Definitely worth a visit is the museum dedicated to the near 4-year siege of the town. The homemade weaponry and utensils show great ingenuity, together with showing the horror war can inflict on civilian populations. Bar the odd attempted ‘€700 police fine’ a fat crooked cop tried to levy on us for not indicating on a turn off. In a show of Balkan defiance, passports were quickly seized by the fat lone cop eyeing a bumper pay day. One synthesised phone call to the British embassy in town later and they were promptly returned, with a rapidly disappearing policeman. Nice. Still made us feel like right sharp tools.
Bosnia & Herzegovina overall was a series of river valleys cutting steep trenches through hilly countryside. It’s easy to see how desperately hard fighting in such terrain must have been, and just how possible it is for a largely guerrilla force like the Bosniaks could keep the Serb menace at bay. Today’s Bosnia is a complex network of two autonomous regions, one Serb, one Bosnian Muslim. Travelling through these valleys, especially between Banja Luka and Sarajevo, you become aware that you are snaking down an unseen border between two peoples, with the front line being demarcated by flags on display in each town and village we pass through. A very interesting place.
On to Serbia and at the crossing over the Drina we encountered the insurance issue yet again. The premium being asked was 3 times higher than Bosnia’s and as by this stage we had managed to get our hands on a faxed copy of the Green Card we felt confident some money could be saved. The Serb police had other ideas though and wouldn’t accept anything but the original. Bob huffed and puffed. I took out our map of Europe and declared aloud we could get an alternative route skirting round Serbia via a mixture of Montenegro, Albania, etc. A swift turnaround over the bridge and we had another confirmatory check of the map and away from the dick swinging in front of the Serbian officials we admitted none of could be arsed backtracking on our route just to save face. A 2nd assault on the Serb border and we were through minus a hundred or so quid.
It was difficult not to hold a sneaking regard for the Serb border police. One, who I think was the 2ic, had good conversational English. It was Bob’s turn to act the angry VIP so I hadn’t said much the whole way through. Who knows what experiences the Serb had been through in his career and he was quite comfortable in turning bad cop himself. When I got out while this was going on I walked over to another older officer to strike up a conversation. It must have been the commandant of the post but I don’t think he understood me and smiled awkwardly. I gave him a few pleasantries in Russian instead and immediately the English speaker strode over sizing me up and attempting to figure out was this an attempt to bypass his authority and begin negotiations with the head man. Asked had I been here before, flicking once more through my passport and enquiring about the whereabouts of any drugs we may have. ‘Nyet’.
Belgrade is in my eyes the cultural capital of the Balkans today. Out of the range of the budget airlines it has quietly built on a finer cultural influence from Western Europe and it’s city centre streets are bustling and cosmopolitan. It’s difficult to imagine the Belgrade described in This is Serbia Calling, a surprisingly engrossing account of the war-time capital from the perspective of an anti-establishment music radio station, but there are a few reminders.
We headed onwards, transiting Sofia via the ring road of doom. At near dusk, we were travelling on a road those speed limit changed arbitrarily every 200 metres or so. Not that much of a drama until the reasoning becomes clear – traffic cops had inserted themselves behind every blind bend, every hump and every ditch in an effort to catch unsuspecting wayfarers passing through. It was the worst driving experience of my life. Straining my eyes between the speedo and the potholed route ahead was a torture. The mood wasn’t great and ‘fucking gypsy bastards’ was used more than a few times to quell the rage. A stop at a roadside Micky D’s and we got accosted by mutant midgies. Out of Bulgaria in short order and we did not like. Meeting up with teams further on however they raved about it’s Black Sea beach resorts. Uber cheap and sheer luxury apparently. We were to get a taste of Black Sea delights in the next country – and continent – though so not a complete washout.
Turkey was our first overwhelmingly Muslim country and our gateway to the East. Keeping well away from the beaten tourist track of the Western European, we found much to like in this place. Having spent the night in the obligatory service station on the outskirts of Istanbul we ventured inside to get a feel of the place and also to sort our final planned visa – Afghanistan.
My first impression of Istanbul was that it’s a lot like London. Strikingly similar I thought. The street buzz was palpable, but one thing that made it steal a lead on London was the presence of football colours throughout the city. And to business – we had Afghan visas to get. Except we didn’t get very far. Ourselves in the presence of an excited young Turk who I helped find the embassy were told it wasn’t possible to get a visa for anything other than work. A small bit of research would have uncovered all we actually needed was a letter of invitation from a hotel. The first time the strict ‘no admin’ policy had let us down. Fuck it there’s always a way…
Also another pressing cultural issue for me: In Muslim countries they don’t seem to do a doner kebab the way the Brits do them. It just comes out like a regular plate of meat. Where’s the slices of reconstructed cow hoof? Gap in the market for British kebab houses in the East.
Speaking of the East – here it is:
A dip in the Bosphorus marked my first time in Asia. The strait looked busy and each time a transporter chugged past the resultant wake would attract a gaggle of excited children getting thrown about as it splashed against the shoreline. We decided having spent the first week successfully doing Europe that we had a few days to chill in Turkey. The tourist traps to the south were avoided and a destination on the Black Sea coastline was chosen in the north – ?ile.
As you can see we settled in well here watching the sun go down on our first night at an open air bar perched on a great location overlooking the bay. Alcohol didn’t come cheap here mind – and highlighting the fact this wasn’t a Westerner destination was the sight of most customers ordering coffees not beers. It was a beautiful place though and we got sorted with a cheap hotel deal, a nights B&B for about 20 quid each, again looking out to sea.
We dragged ourselves away from the cool waters of the Black sea and got on with the journey. Northern Turkey is quite isolated and hilly, but once we got back onto the E80 we made good progress eastwards, driving into the night eventually stopping just short of Samsun. The next morning in the first display of local kindness since we started out a family going in the opposite direction pulled up & shared their breakfast with us. A tasty mixture of fresh bread, vegetables and tea. Cheers guys! In general the Turks would definitely be contenders for friendliest people.
This was the point at which we had also run out of map: