In the summer of 2015, Mike, Kevin and I went on an epic adventure.
Across 15,000km, 17 countries, and 35 days, we made our way from London, England to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, raising over $3000 for charity.
Below are the posts from the blog at the time, hosted here so they can live on forever:
- The First Post
- Pre-Mongol and Day 1
- Eastern Europe: Bathhouses, Batman Cave, (B)Dracula, and Borders
- Georgia and Azerbaijan
- Baku Ferry, Turkmenistan
- Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan
- Kazakhstan and Russia
- Mongolia: Part 1
- Mongolia: Part 2
The First Post
Pre Mongol Rally Selfie.
The First Post. The Blog page lies so barren, so pristine. We do not pose to be great writers, nor great photographers, however, as you will soon realize, we know how to throw together a good adventure.
PRESENTING LOS TRES AMIGOS
Here’s presenting the three best friends that anyone could ever have: Kevin, Daniel and Michael, and their decision to travel 1/3 of the way across the world in hopes of avoiding ISIS and to see some of the beautiful offerings of some of the more exotic and hard to reach corners of this cool planet we call Earth, but also to raise some serious money for charity. We plan on keeping all of you who decide to follow our zany adventures updated through this blog, and hope that you enjoy the unique experiences we will gain from this trip.
You might be wondering: what makes three young men decide to drive from London to Mongolia in an incompetent metal carriage? Although somewhat spontaneously made at a barbecue in Whiterock over a few beers, the decision stemmed from three of Daniel’s friends who conquered the rally last year and spoke of some of the unique wonders and experiences they were able to witness. Despite almost starving to death on a ferry ride over The Caspian Sea, they said they would do the trip again in a heart beat and that they experienced some things they felt that the majority of people living around them in North America would never get a chance to. The three of us are always looking to give ourselves a new challenge and push our boundaries, so we can grow as people. There is so much to learn in other areas of the world from different cultures and different perspectives, and we couldn’t be more excited to dive deeply into some of the more hard-to-reach areas across the ocean. After some discussion at the party, and with some serious aid from alcohol, three hands came together and a decision was made to travel over 13,000 km through 20+ countries in an outrageous quest to seek an answer to the question: what is TOO much adversity?
Although the decision to do this trip was easy, the planning hasn’t been. Figuring out visas, sponsorship, and best ways to fundraise are great ways to eat up time. We have many thanks to give to VisaHQ and Visa Machine for speeding up this process, otherwise we could have been filling these applications into our residency. Here’s a picture capturing our victory after fulfilling the majority of the applications at VisaHQ:
Celebratory Chipotle. These boys know how to eat.
LESSONS LEARNED PRE-TRIP
Here are 3 quirky lessons we have stumbled across either via web or through friends in preparation for the trip.
- Do not give thumbs up in Iran. It is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger.
- Do not wave your left hand in the air in Iran. It is the hand you use to wipe your bum and is a severe form of disrespect.
- Do not drive through Turkmenistan with a dirty vehicle. It is ILLEGAL there.
Now, when it comes to driving across Europe, the Middle East and Asia, which car do you choose? Considering we have little more experience with cars than a monkey with a wrench, we originally went with what had been described as “the most boringly reliable car” in the Rally: The Nissan Micra. After several failed attempts through the equivalent of Craig’s list (Auto trader UK), a serendipitous event involving Mike’s uncle’s colleague ended with us buying a Toyota Yaris for a very reasonable 500 quid. She’s a magnificent, purring beauty. Now, to decorate. We are thinking of painting the car to look like a Zebra or potentially throwing some horns on the roof rack. We will keep you updated on the final product.
Our first look at our car. Don’t worry we’ll have better photos coming.
Overall, the most important thing for us about this trip, which we would love for all of you to get involved with, is fundraising for our two charities: UBC Global Health Initaitve and Cool Earth. If you haven’t heard of them, please read more about them in our charities section on this website. We have already raised over $2000 (including our party fundraiser which raised over $600); in order to meet the required amount of fundraising for the event, we must raise $1000, however, we plan on raising a minimum of $4,000. In order to donate, please follow this link:
We would like to sincerely thank all of you who have already donated. The UBC Global Health initiative is especially close to our heart. Our very own Dan just spent the last 4 weeks in India, living in the remote Himalayan Spiti Valley. There he worked on Engineering and Medical projects at the Munsel-Ling Children’s School. The whole Spiti Valley was closed to the public until 1992. Established in 1996, this is the only school in the whole valley that teaches English, Hindi, and was founded to teach local Spitian language and to maintain Spitian culture after the doors to the public were opened in 1992. Dan will make a separate blog post to describe how your donations will provide the children services such as upgraded toilets, increased chlorination infrastructure, and screening for health issues (this year the medical team screened 6 kids with scabies, a few kids with preventable long term conditions such as strabismus, and many kids with treatable infections).
Welcome to our very first blog post and to the adventure of a lifetime. We sincerely hope that you enjoy our posts and that you are able to track our journeys through some of the most interesting and hidden wonders of the world. We plan on keeping this blog updated thoroughly throughout the trip, and really look forward to sharing all the stories, pictures and life lessons learned from our trip with you. Please enjoy, and don’t forget to donate to our two charities. Thanks again for listening, and stay tuned for more!
Made the trek to the Stonehenge and all we got was this lousy selfie. Guests Pictured: Marina and Shayla
Daniel, Kevin, and Michael
Pre-Mongol and Day 1
Pre-Launch Party held at the Goodwood Race Track
This past week has been a whirlwind of scrambling to get ready for the Mongol Rally, spending time with friends, and soaking up the experiences that we could in London.
Before we get started on our activities, we want to dedicate a paragraph to Vetty’s beloved grandpa. He is one of Vetty’s greatest role models and all things taken into account, a superhero. Douglas Shennan had the three of us to stay for the week in Ealing, London, and went out of his way, at 89, to make us feel comfortable. At this tender age he still does weights every day including 100 reps of 40 pounds (some members of our group were unable to do so), sit ups and up until last year, was able to bike over 100 km at a time. He just finished a series of accounting exams, and before completing said exams, received a phone call from the registrar questioning whether his age was a clerical error. His mind is still as sharp as anything and more than that, he has a heart of gold. He is an inspiration for the three of us and we are forever in debt for the kindness he showed us this week. Vetty’s grandpa was able to put us in contact with a mechanic close by and if there was one piece of advice we were able to take away from this encounter, it was to “go slow”. We learned this through repetition as he did not think we would need a sump guard or other precautions as long as we took that piece of advice to heart. The solution to all Mongol-related problems: “foot off the pedal”. Hopefully the adrenaline-seeking part of our personalities won’t fail us and we will remember this sage advice come Kazakhstan’s pothole-infested highway or the dirt/rock covered Mongolian desert.
Some of our other struggles this week included our sticker company sponsorship unraveling slowly and torturously, and getting a roof rack/box. After driving over an hour and a half to Reading to secure a roof rack, it was discovered that Craigslist type sites aren’t typically as reliable as they could be, and the roof rack didn’t quite fit our car perfectly. We ended up visiting Autodroma, an autobody shop at 3 The Ham Street, and got the damn thing bolted down and sealed. This sealant failed, however, when we took our car for a car wash. Daniel, in the back seat, got an unexpected shower when going through the car wash. When we said we wanted to soak up the experiences we didn’t mean literally.
Matt the aircraft engineer/photographer/philanthropist (he donated our roof rack)
Besides getting ready for the trip, we spent some quality time with Vetty’s family, including his uncle Andrew, cousins Michael and Angus, and auntie Jo. We want to give a couple shout out to some of our friends we hung out with this week as well: our granola gremlins Marina and Shayla, our fellow medic Alan, and fellow food connoisseur Sarah. We had tons of fun with all of you exploring London and we thank you for being a part of our adventure!
DAY 1 MONGOL
We arrived at the GoodWood motor circuit and had absolutely no idea what to expect. After a scenic “short-cut” in back country England once or twice, we finally felt we were on the right route and although Dan doubted it seriously, through the hedges we spotted a few tents and many cars. We had finally made it. Dan’s dream, after two years, was finally here. It was real. It was tangible. We were ushered through the entrance to the camp site and saw to our astonishment the wackiest and craziest set of rally cars we could ever imagine. There was a car crafted into a spaceship, one into a reptile, one had an Indiana Jones theme, one a Toy Story theme, and all in all hundreds of people hailing from countries around the world coming together for one common goal: to conquer 13,000 km from London to Mongolia.
After registration and setting up our tent in the campsite right next to where all the cars were parked, we had a great night out meeting people from the US, Australia, Portugal, Ireland, Scotland, and many others. We all shared our routes and made efforts to gather contact information to make sure that no rally car was left behind. The Formulary 1 boys concocted a traditional UK Pimm’s drink including oranges and strawberries filled into an empty 1 L water bottle with the top cut off by a pair of beard-grooming scissors and made many a traveling friend over a few bevies.
The next morning after passing out in our tents was one full of activities. We woke up bright and early with music still blaring to see that some people had apparently never gone to sleep. After collecting our thoughts, we drove over to the GoodWood race track where the event was officially kicking off. This is where we met DJ Gertrude.
Featured Profile: DJ Gertrude
This is Gertrude. She’s the #1 hottest Carnival music DJ in Europe. From a very young age she had a relentless attraction to clowns, cotton candy, and carnies. Being on the cutting edge of technology, she drew her CD weapons out of a massive case and the Mongol Rally crowd went crazy for carnival. With one ear in her headphones and her quicksilver fingers on the record, Gertrude was simply lethal on the set.
A series of hilarious races were held at the track as a send-off party. A propeller boosted skateboarder faced off a guy in a monkey costume running and a man biking a comically tiny bicycle. There was also a race including a car that could do a wheely and rickshaw running races. After a team photo, everyone gathered around and it was time to do the ceremonious one lap around Good Wood to get started.
Featured Profile: Dhesi-mation.
This guy is a balla shawcalla. He is an investment banker in London who is finishing the Mongol Rally solo in an unbelievable 17 days. On the very first night, Dhesi didn’t have a single wink to sleep; he was too busy dishing out drinks from his self-made bar in the trunk of his car (see the World Globe in the picture.. that’s it). With no more than a spare tire on his roof rack and a recently installed sound system, Dhesi plans on finishing the rally with no sleep or sustenance. This guy is a living, breathing, investment machine. Gordon Gecko once described Dhesi as “too fast-paced to handle”.
Cars revved and it was at this time point when everyone was getting in their cars and getting ready to drive around the motor circuit, that this idea we had thought up way back in November finally came to fruition. We were entering the Mongol Rally. Cars with palm trees and bananas on them and one that had been crafted with a monkey peeing water off of it from the top were around us, not to mention tons of whacky car horns and goofy car accessories. The approximately 200 cars drove towards Good Wood and after a hasty lap, we were off!
The Mongol Rally Launch at Goodwood Race Track. We all did a ceremonious lap before the rally really began.
We made a pit stop in Hastings by the Dover port where the ferry takes off to go to Calais in France, and decided that a typical UK staple of fish and chips was necessary. After a fiendishly good meal, we took a dip in the Atlantic Ocean and headed to the ferry.
In Hastings, a few blocks before the fish and chips we wolfed down.
The Formulary 1 Boys soaking up a selection of bevies at Delirium.
Our first destination once getting off the ferry was Brussels. If any of you feel a smile perk up around your lips when you think of a pink elephant on a beer mug, you would have absolutely fallen in love with Delirium Café, where we stopped for a few pints. This place has the Guinness world record for biggest assortment of beers, topping over 2000. We tried one made by Buddhist monks and one of our favourites, Delirium Tremens. A highlight of the night was running into a friend of John Lee’s, Joanne. She understood the greatness that is John Lee; she was a good gal. John Lee is a fiery, sexual beast. He is a great way to end this post. That is all.
John Lee. The Legend.
Eastern Europe: Bathhouses, Batman Cave, (B)Dracula, and Borders
July 20 and 21st - Prague
July 20 – Today we woke up in an abandoned parking lot in Brussels. We packed up our tent and got into our car fairly early to hit the road, as it was going to be a long day of travels. About 8 hours of driving to be exact from Brussels to Prague. The team has really taken a fondness to the song Lava – the short before the film ‘Inside Out’ (The Newest Pixar movie), and have decided that it, at least so far, is our theme song. We may have a special surprise in store later on in the trip concerning some choice singing and choreography.
Once we arrived in Prague, we headed straight to the site where we would be camping with our fellow Mongols. Our original plans included going to a place called James Dean in downtown Prague, but we were glad that we ended up staying at the Mongol site. The event of the night was ‘Czech out’ which included a DJ, lights, a fire show, and cheap beers, always a favourite for us poor, starving university students. To our utter disappointment, DJ Gertrude and her magma hot carnival tracks were not present.
One major milestone of the day was getting in some exercise; this was the first of the trip since July 13th. For some members of the group, exercise is at the base of the pyramid for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and so this fulfilled the most fundamental of our basic human needs. Unfortunately our bodies failed us, however, as we made it about 2 km before settling into a trot and finally a walk. It was worth it to slow down though to see the beautiful city of Prague, with its remarkable bridges, churches and architecture.
At the Czech Out Party, near the beginning of the night’s shenanigans.
July 21 - Budapest
We put a new definition to a slow start this morning. After rocking out of bed around 930 am, we got a rude awakening from the blinding light and opened our tent to see bodies scattered everywhere with half-finished beers milling about and a scene that would put any college party aftermath to shame. Some Brazilians still hadn’t gone to sleep and were chanting their traditional pub songs, and people really got creative with their sleeping positions. One guy slept horizontally in a Cooper, resembling a fetus. After finally getting out of the camp site about 2 hours after we had hoped, we drove to Budapest in Hungary where we were overwhelmed with excitement to go to the Szechenyi Bathhouse. Right in the middle of a city park, this Hungarian bathhouse is world famous, and really met expectations. The crew spent 4-5 hours relaxing in the heated 37-38 degree Celsius pool, the pool for lengths in which no exercise was completed, and a whirlpool. Legends say that several moons ago, Dan’s dad was so relaxed underneath one of the Hungarian fountains that he passed out – we visited this historic fountain. Upon seeing the whirlpool, which was filled with mostly dependents, the boys literally sprinted into the pool and joined the dense throng of people who were swept up in the current going around in circular fashion. Of course this suddenly turned into a competition, and the three musketeers took to racing around the whirlpool avoiding human obstacles at least most of the time. This produced quite a few laughs even external to our group, and after our fingers were sufficiently wrinkled, we headed to our hostel in downtown Budapest.
Farmer’s Tans and Raisin Fingers. Note: right by Mike’s right arm are Matt and Derrick, the other Vancouver team doing the Rally this year.
July 22nd - Romania
Today we went to Salina Turda, an abandoned salt mine turned into an amusement park 450 feet below the surface in Romania. This place you probably have never heard of, it’s so underground. We just got amazed again and again in this place. Some of the biggest attractions included rowing in this underground lake, where each of the boys took a turn romantically paddling the other two around. The bromance was strong at this lake. We also played mini golf which until the second last hole was a barn burner. We came to this impossible hole on an upslant, and if you didn’t get a hole in one, you practically received your ball again at the start because it would just roll back down. Kev miraculously got it on his 2nd or 3rd shot, while Dan and Vettey took 15+ strokes. Vetty took an impressive 40 strokes – what determination. He celebrated with a characteristic Tiger Woods fist pump.
Salina Turda: the section with salt lake rowing
Salina Turda: Rowing, up close and personal with Dan and Vetty
We really liked Salina Turda
It is rumoured that Salina Turda was used to film the bat cave in Batman. Even if we hear otherwise, we will convince ourselves that this is the case. Bruce was happy to have us stay in Wayne manor, and we really used the facilities to their utmost, including the strictly enforced under 10 years old playground.
Enjoying ALL that Salina Turda has to offer
After a few hours at Salina Turda, we had to drive several hours to get to our next destination in Romania, Bran Castle. This is the world famous Dracula castle and we spent practically the whole night driving to get there. We drove through some of the creepiest Romanian villages you could imagine; we swore for kilometer stretches that not a single person was around. This creepy setting, along with a pothole infested road, if you can even call it a road, made for an aptly spooky car ride to get to the greatest fabled blood sucker of all time, the Count himself. We ended up camping at the Vampire camping site near the castle and visited the castle in the morning. Equipping ourselves with stakes and silver crosses, we held hands and prayed to live to see the morning light. Bonus: since we arrived after midnight and left before 7am, the camping office never opened and we got a free sleep.
Donkey Kong (aka Vetty) placating the local wildlife at the Vampire campsite.
July 23rd - Bulgaria
After our pitiful 4 hour sleep we drove from Romania, right through Bulgaria to Istanbul. It was a long, long day. Let’s rewind a little. Before this trip we were given one very important piece of advice from our friends who did the rally a few years ago. Do NOT, under any circumstances, go through Bulgaria. In fact, after our first pub-meeting with our Mongol Rally veteran friends, we had a screen-shot of a world map with ‘DON’T GO TO BULGARIA’ sprawled across it. Their warnings were corroborated by blogs describing being held at gunpoint. However, conversations with the other Vancouver team in the Rally shed some new light. Apparently while the mountain passages were dangerous, the route along the Black Sea is pumped with tourism money. This route was longer, but well worth it – the views were stunning – both women and scenery. Our only pit stop in Bulgaria was to go to the beach – Sunny Beach, a world-famous spot. The crew got adept quickly at turning down deals; we stuck out like a sore thumb. Maybe it was Vetty’s shark tank, Kevin’s Tilly hat or Dan’s beacon-like pale skin, but we were certainly targeted. After a 30 second dip in the Black Sea, we were off on the road to the Turkish border.
About 3 km from the Turkish border we drove into a construction site and treated Michelle (the name our car chose for herself) to a photoshoot. Just as the photoshoot was heating up, an angry looking Bulgarian man came up to us and accosted us with what we can only assume to be a slough of swear-words. The Turkish border was one of our most peculiar experiences so far. Picture this: you park in front of a station and in the entrance, there is a strobe light reminiscent of a night club. All around you are stray dogs that are seriously underfed. You walk into the station, and there are absolutely no markings or signs on where to go or who to talk to. And the border staff are certainly not jumping out of their seats to help you. You go up to the first window and show your passports. They plug some numbers into their computer and then we are redirected to another window. This time, we are missing our car insurance, which is located outside the building. We collect our insurance (equivalent of a Green Card in EU), and then go back to the same guy inside to finalize our documents. But you’re not done. Then, you are redirected outside to a border patrol officer sitting by himself in a dark corner, smoking a cigarette, and on his phone. He doesn’t cue you on what to do so you go up to him and ask him if you’re in the right place or if he even works there. His first question is: “who is the chauffer?” – also known as who is the registered driver. Vetty was. Vetty gets a stamp in his passport and we are finally on our way.
The day was spent in Istanbul. After firing off a few quick e-mails and texts, the team went to the Blue Mosque, which was within earshot of our hostel. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to the three of us, we weren’t allowed in because A) our shoulders and knees were not covered, and B) prayer was happening when we were there, between 1-230. It was still nice to see the beautiful architecture and to hear the prayers over the loud speaker. Listening to the prayers was both meditative and spiritual.
We cruised around the district and saw the Ayasofia museum, Basilica Cistern and many other historical buildings. Next up, mint/lemon Sheesha and Turkish coffee were shared just off the busy Istiklal street.
There was a cafe nestled in to the narrow street just off Istiklal Street. Here we had a close-up view as this Barista prepared our Turkish Coffee. On Istiklal street, being an outrageously hot day and all, we decided to hit up an ice cream vendor, who are notorious for being cheeky with how they give out ice cream. It’s not quite as easy as just receiving the cone. The vendor will give you a cone, only for you to find that it’s placed within another cone, and teases you endlessly for about 5 minutes until you actually get your ice cream. He’ll pretend to flip it upside down like it’s about to fall on the ground, he’ll use his scooper to pick up the ice cream and take it back, and all in all make you look like a total fool before you finally get a bite. When you do finally get that bite of ice cream, it tastes like the best damn ice cream you’ve ever had. I scream, you scream, now give me my bloody ice cream!
The Evil Ice Cream Mastermind, minutes before humiliating Kevin, Dan and Vetty One of the first things the hostel host pointed us to upon arrival was the famous pub crawl the hostel had. According to the unbiased founder of the pub crawl, it was the #1 rated nightlife activity in Instanbul, and so it seemed appropriate for the boys to go.
Featured Profile: Federico
This guy has more energy than an Energizer bunny on methenphetamines. We say that with love, because he is one of our favourite people this trip. With his charismatic Italian cadence he charmed his way into our hearts. Yes, that is his face on the shirt he is wearing. #meta
We met some Italians, some fellow Canadians from Toronto, a Canadian who was a retired English teacher and now a hostel pub crawl host for 2 years, and others from all across the world. For whatever reason, Latino music was the genre of choice at the three bars we went to, and Daniel used his swinging hips to light the bar on fuego.
Chai! We were at the top of Gulhane Park where there is a Bosphorous viewing area/café. After ordering a chai, the above tray was left at our table without any explanation. Kevin and Dan, confused as all hell, decided to ask the table beside us, the steps required for drinking the tea. They beckoned us over to sit at their table with them which had a better view and taught us the art of the Turkish Chai. The pot had two parts. The top part had a concentrated black tea, the bottom part had just plain boiled water. While placing a strainer over the tea glass, we watched as our new friend, Tulay, poured the potent black tea about halfway up the glass. Then she removed the strainer and filled the rest of the glass with boiling water, added some sugar, stirred and voila. While Tulay spoke English well, her two friends did not. This guy and Dan, who we decided looked very much like a ‘Jozeph’ with a Z, had a great conversation. He spoke Turkish. Dan spoke English. Dan smiled. He smiled. We laughed. He was trying to teach us the words for ‘beautiful sky’, and when Dan repeated it, it came out very wrong: somehow Dan was taking about ‘Butt’. And not a pretty way of saying it either.
With our newly-made Turkish friends. Behind us is the bridge connecting Europe and Asia
Half of the day was spent in Istanbul and the other half was spent driving to Cappadocia.
At the Sahlmatet café, the kids shared some meatballs and enjoyed a bit of a lackadaisical day after a late night from the pub crawl. We walked through a bazaar close to the Blue Mosuqe and took a look at different teas, some reaching as high as 1200 Lira/kg. Unique rugs, tea and Turkish coffee sets, as well as traditional Turkish clothing were spotted in the Bazaar. It took a lot of will power not to buy everything, as so many of the items had such clear value to them.
The whole day was conquered at a turtle pace, and eventually the brus were back on the road. The beautiful road. Our home. After a day and a half of no driving, we missed it dearly. We took the bridge from Europe to Asia and were finally out of the predictable, safe territory that is Europe. The areas from now on will progressively get hairier and hairier.
We arrived in Cappadocia around 1:30am and dropped like a couple of bricks into bed knowing we had to get up at 3:45am for sunrise hot air ballooning.
Today was an early rise at 345 in order to catch the shuttle to the hot air balloon site. After a quick breakfast of pastries and Apple tea, the shuttle went to the main hot air balloon site in Cappadocia, a complete dream world full of stunning colours, contrasts, rolling mountains and balloons. The sight of all the balloons was fantastical; pictures of the site are pretty spectacular but really don’t do it justice. After being positioned in the basket of the hot air balloon, we were given a lesson on the landing position, which consisted of squatting down and hanging on for dear life to the semicircular ropes in front of you. Team Formulary 1 were experts dropping it down low after listening to the song “Deep down low” on repeat for most of the 2500 miles traveled in the car so far.
Our pilot led us into battle, and inflated the hot air balloon by burning natural gas. By pumping on the gas in intervals, our pilot was able to diversify his career into DJ territory, dropping rhythms hotter than an African drummer on Adderol. When we finally got up in the sky, and saw the sun starting to rise over the mountains, it was truly breathtaking. It was a childhood dream of the team and it quickly became an unforgettable experience. On the way down, a team of luggers came in a truck with a trailer attached to it for the hot air balloon to land on. It really seemed like an impossible feat to land the balloon on such a small surface, but with deft hands, our pilot was able to land us safely onto the trailer. This wasn’t without a struggle, however, as there is a team of people involved in pulling the balloon by rope in the right direction towards the trailer. At times some of them were flying in the air because of the force generated by the balloon. This part of the ride was almost as entertaining as being up in the air. After landing, sparkling apple juice was shared, and the team was awarded with the one single greatest achievement of their lives: a participation certificate stating that we had indeed done the balloon tour in Cappadocia. Tears were shed and hugs embraced. It was a handsome victory.
At a gas station, we were spotted by fellow (and the only other) Vancouverites, Team Khanada, aka Derrick and Matt. On our way to Trabzon, we followed Team Khanada in their pursuit to stop, at least for 5 minutes, at any site that really caught your eye. It ended up being completely worth it, as it was a ghastly engineering mistake that left a bridge flooded with water, but in our eyes, a beautiful and unique site to stop at. Members of the team took turns seemingly walking on water and having bromantic walks wading through the water. Just when we thought that we couldn’t take our bromance any further, it blossomed into a vibrant, transcendent flower. We were able to walk over the bridge and this made for some pretty scenic pictures. Derrick’s choice of shoes was avant-garde wearing white sneakers, and was not shy to fully immerse himself into the water. The sneakers now have a hipster clayish hue to them.
Derrick of Team Khanada, moments before immersing his sneakers. Approximately an hour away from Trabzon, we decided that we were going to find a place to camp and with it likely being the last night together, grab some beers. Some poor miming was done to ask if there were any beers around, and eventually we stmbled across some golden sweet nectar. After grabbing a few veggies and food items to cook up at the camp site, we were on our way. It has quickly become apparent how friendly people are in eastern Turkey. People wave at us from all directions, and there is something deeply pleasing about the state of humanity when a complete stranger from across the planet not only acknowledges you, but welcomes you to their country. Especially with a totally goofed up car. Today was our first true test on terrain, with dust and rocks flying in all directions. We were finally on legitimate Mongol rally roads.
We woke up at the campsite a little groggy from last night’s beers. One of the members of our group became very familiar with the nature surrounding our campsite as we had a milestone: the first GI issue. It is safe to say that that area should be evacuated and we might go as far as to say that all members of Team Khanada and Formulary1 should be quarantined. After one member of our team had number 1 and 2 intertwined in a way that he would never like again, we were off. We headed to Trabzon and decided that we would grab some lunch and Turkish coffee, as well as Wifi, another of our staple diets. We quickly became the whitest people to ever dip in the Black Sea later on during the trip to Trabzon, and bonded with Team Khanada over aqua ‘activities’. Never has Canada’s nationalism been greater than this day. Unfortunately, once we got into the busy Trabzon city centre, we lost the other Vancouver team. We were devastated. Like a Canadian flag torn in half, or burned part way through, we felt incomplete, not whole, like our better half had left us. Nevertheless, we had to move on. Because if you don’t move forward in life, you get left behind. Stay tuned for our next post in Georgia and Azerbaijan with such wondrous features as: Kevin’s First Bribe, Mishaps at the Border, Our First Flat Tire, and last but not least, BLOODY DIARRHEA!
Georgia and Azerbaijan
July 28th - Georgia
We rolled into our first border east of Europe at about 3pm. As we approached, we sped past rows and rows of trucks parked at the side of the road, musing to ourselves that this might make for some good dash cam footage (we will be posting videos of our Blackvue Dash-Cam donated by Blackboxmycar.com). Our ‘lols’ soon turned to bawls as we realized we had to drive to the back of an equally long line of passenger cars. Through some mangled Turkish-English conversation we found out that the border wait would be 5 hours. When we finally did make it across, we celebrated the cheaper Georgian prices for wine, bread, cheese and meat before hitting the road hard with our new found treasures. We wouldn’t stop until 3 am, after about 7 hours of straight shot driving. A mixture of cheese, road-side coffee and the Georgian specialty Churchkhela (see pic) in belly, we arrived at a free camping ground less than an hour outside the Georgian capital Tbilisi. At the site, we stayed awake long enough to polish off a bottle of the Georgian wine and hit the hay, not quite understanding where we were under the blanket of darkness.
We’ve mentioned before how craved the Team Formulary 1 boys are for some exercise. Being cramped in a car all day can take its toll, and we were hurting for a workout. By some divine hand we stepped out our tent to find an outdoor ghetto gym. The bruiser cruisers quickly got into a mass blast, the likes of which would make Arnie proud. Never has a flex looked so good. The milk bag dad bods would be delayed yet another day.
The Georgia-Azerbaijan Border Crossing
The triple threat trio rage brigade surged towards the Georgian border crossing into Azerbaijan ,wielding passports and cigarettes on the dashboard. We were more than a little uneasy having heard the mass of stories about sketchy boarder crossings east of Turkey from Mongol Rally posts; they all wait just beyond Georgia. Just a few kilometres from the border Kevin wondered if it would be a problem that his eVisa was on his phone and not printed. We replied with something resembling ‘YOLO’ and kept trudging forwards Two overly keen teenagers approach our car, one with a golden tooth and both wearing jeans and polo shirts. They mime to us about how we need to have the cigarettes ready, and not just a pack but several. The group eventually gets separated with Dan and Kevin continuing on foot, and Vetty staying with the car registered in his name. We were parked behind a Bentley and the driver, a wealthy looking, jeans-wearing, sunglasses-weilding Azerbaijani man got out to suspiciously rip the tint off of all his windows. This bad-ass Bently-driving mob boss was a taste of what was yet to come.
At a sweltering 40 degree celsius, for Kevin and Dan the agitation was building. Kevin confessed this was the hottest he’d ever been in his life. After some water and ice-cream, Dan and Kevin mustered the courage to walk-on through. Daniel, with his visa printed in his passport, strolled on through with ease, but Kevin had a little more trouble. At the request of the beautiful Passport Control lady, he handed over his passport. After some confusion, he explained that he did not have the requested paper copy and that the visa was on his phone. “No” were the only words that left the most radiant woman in Georgia’s mouth. Daniel through the border, and Kevin on the wrong side, the two gazed longingly at one another. Separated by so little distance, but by so much red tape, they parted ways to solve the problem. Daniel went to speak to another, equally transcendently beautiful, passport control lady who spoke English (she has a sister who lives in Kelowna, and ‘loves Canada’). He explained the situation, to which she laughed and suggested that Kevin take a cab to the town 15 km away and get it printed (we couldn’t use our car – it was already through the border). Daniel suggested they use printers of the local exchange office company, but apparently their black and white ink wasn’t good enough – colour printing was a necessity for the folks in Azerbaijan.
Earlier, Kevin and Dan had made friends with a Shwarma salesman just a few blocks from the border, and Kevin went to him to ask for help. The shwarma man put Kevin in touch with an English-speaking policeman. They quickly bonded over their admiration of the beautiful passport control employees before the policeman set up Kevin with 1) a car ride to and from the nearest town for the equivalent of only 15 Canadian dollars, and 2) the policeman’s own phone number in case anything goes wrong.
In travel books and stories, you always hear about how kind and helpful the locals can be. What Kevin and Dan experienced in the next couple of hours could only be described as the purest form of Georgian hospitality. Kevin went back to the border to find Daniel waiting just across the way. Like star-crossed lovers, the two called out their plans from across the ‘red-tape’ that separated them so. While Kevin was gone, the Passport Control lady with the Canadian sister (Ekki) had helped Daniel find a police officer who seemed to be willing to help. We say ‘seem’, because Kevin and Dan didn’t understand anything that was going on, except for Canadian-sister-having Ekki’s encouraging smiles and laughs. They were told to urgently put the eVisa on a USB. The police man came back after a confusing wait and our Ekki explained the good news to them. A police officer was going to drive to the nearest town and print it FOR K&D. No charge whatsoever. After a celebratory 20 minute wait, and giving some Canadian pencils and pins to those that helped KD, Kevin had in hand a colour-printed, pristine copy of his visa, without a dollar spent. We love the Georgians.
Kevin and Dan reunited with Vetty in the car que for entry to Azerbaijan. The line up after exiting Georgia and before entering Azerbaijan was long, and through the whole Kevin-Visa fiasco, Vetty still hadn’t reached the front. Time stretched out. This would be another full-day border crossing. Kevin and Dan played a game of chess on the roof of the car to pass the time. Every time Vetty had to move the car forward, they would stop their game, pick up the chess board and hold it. In one of those game-stopping moments, the boys noticed something that happens to every Mongol Rally team: they had their very first Flat Tire. They rejoiced at finally hitting this monumental milestone, and largely put off the issue to continue playing now fiercely competitive chess game. A few moves onwards, a Georgian man points out our flat tire to us and offers to pump it with his truck. After pumping, it was clear there was a hole in our tire. Kevin’s tire repair kit from UK was fit for the job, and turned out to be 12 quid well spent. After a quick tutorial from an Azeri taxi driver, the tire was patched and we were ready to roll.
Chess while Kevin and Dan waited
Our new friend helping us with our first flat.
The Georgian-Canadian Gang
As Kevin and Dan crossed on foot from Georgia to Azerbaijan, Vetty drove his car over the one way spikes to the infamous Azerbaijani crossing. He’s waved over by the first officer who starts yelling Russian at him. Vetty can’t understand Russian, and so the officer gets frustrated and waves him over to another area. To resolve this communication problem, the officer brings over approximately 9 other officers, all of whom speak Russian, to communicate in the language that Vetty clearly doesn’t understand. They all shout at once in order to increase their communication. Vetty gets out of the car and explains that he cannot understand what they are saying but they are welcome to do what they need with the car. They do the equivalent of a full body search with the car, not shy to prod and yank Michelle (our car) in any way they wanted. Eventually, an English speaking Azerbaijani officer comes by and saves the day. He talks to Vetty and explains to the others that what they are doing is unnecessary, and that he is complying with what they need. This kind officer then expedites the process and gets Vetty to the front of the line for insurance and other documents, and all in all was deeply respectful and courteous.
Shortly after the border, we found a field to camp by and put our stove to use to make some delicious baked beans and couscous. It was serene to enjoy the sounds of crickets and the nature without the busy sounds of the city, and to look up into the sky and see a sky full of stars. This inspired the group to ponder deeply philosophical thoughts not unlike Socrates and Aristotle in ancient Greece; whether man was inherently good or evil, and if Vetty’s GI issues could cover all colours of the rainbow by the end of the week. With our intellectual appetites whetted and bodies wetted by baby wipes, the dream team took to rest.
Camping Spot Just After Azerbaijani Border
The next morning, Vetty was spotted by the farmer driving down the road in a vulnerable position, one in which left nothing to the farmer’s imagination. It was at this point that it was decided it was probably time to leave this farmer’s home. The trifecta of terror left to the road and headed to the busy and thriving city of Baku, but not without one incredibly meaningful and unique pit-stop: at mud volcanoes. This ended up being one of, if not the most fun experiences the group had had so far.
On the road to Baku, we were stopped by Azeri police for the perfectly understandable reason of “passing another car”. As the policeman strutted up, several cars passed one another. After muttering a few words under his breath, he drags Kevin away with our International Driver’s licenses, and Dan and Vetty are left to wonder what the hell is happening. Kev comes back, describes the “penalty” and says that we can either pay 100 dollars now to get our IDL’s back, or 100 in Baku to get them back. Also known as a bribe. Being rookies to this situation, we were able to barter for 30 Manat and 4 packs of cigarettes. In the future it is best to pretend like you have no money, and to have cigarettes in the most inconvenient place possible to convince the officer he could have bribed 2 people in the meantime. THis, along with showing the officer pictures of your family members with cats and other nonsensical conversations are sure to land you with close to nothing lost. The best we have heard from Mongol is 3 days jail time and 200 dollars fine to 3 boiling unwanted Czech beers, 2 cigarettes, and 5 Manat. Next time we’ll be prepared.
We stopped by the side of the highway after miming to several locals about volcanoes while making explosive movements with our hands, and found a group of taxi drivers stationed by the side of the road. They quickly knew exactly what we were talking about and told us that they were acutely aware that our car would not be able to handle the bumps and potholes of the road leading up to the mud volcanoes. They selflessly offered their services and informed us that their cars, on the other hand, we’re quite capable. They kept pointing to the underside of our car saying that it was too low and the like, even though the taxi cars were evidently quite a bit lower. Understanding that 1+2=4 in this situation, the group asked politely for directions and were on their way.
The road ended up being quite testing, and the group was wary of the recently fixed tire at the border. It took quite a beating but ended up surviving the bump-infested road. We eventually reached the top and found what we had been looking for. There were various mounds int he area, each erupting with grey, thick, wet mud every once in a while, and we drove til we found the biggest one in a more isolated area. The first person we saw blended in with the mound, as he was covered from head to toe in mud. He resembled The Thing from Fantastic Four. The group immediately bursted into laughter and headed towards the mound. We quickly became aware that this security guard from a BP station nearby was the local ‘mud guru’, and he gave us a veteran’s tour of the various mud/water pools we had to try out in the area. He was more than a bit excited to have friends join him in a mud dip at the top of the volcano, and the rage brigade stripped down to their underwear(s) to join in on this pact of mud blood. Like the communal naked baths we used to take when 5 years old, the brohemion rhapsody frolicked and giggled in the mud baths, enjoying the equivalent of an expensive spa experience for free. It was then decided that we would take a video of us singing the song ‘Lava’ from the animated short before the new Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’. This has been one of our many theme songs this trip, and there was no more apt situation than the current one to sing it. The mud-clad stone men took to the camera and belted out the heart string pulling tune, fastidiously removing all remnants of tone from the song. The effort was what counted however.
After the mud baths, we drove to Baku and passed out at the Guest House Inn, a hospitable hostel near the Baku downtown core.
After experiencing a few too many colours of the rainbow this week, Vetty unfortunately succumbed to going to the Baku Central Clinical hospital in order to ensure he would be ok for the ferry. Receiving medical care without being able to speak the local language is something he will be able to appreciate for the rest of his life. After a few minutes of unnecessary tests, Vetty was able to demonstrate that what was surging through his veins was also come out of his logging factory. He was moved through three different areas before getting a shot to his derriere, some relevant tests, and IV fluids (and maybe something else?), which was never explained what it was, and finally given a new prescription. He’ll spare you some gory details and say that the end result is that these medications are helping him.
Getting Azeri seat covers for our car. We had three necessities for survival before getting on to the Turkmenistan cargo ship. 1) Water 2) Food 3) Azeri Seat Coverings. Daniel believed the order should have been reversed.
The past several days we have been stuck in Baku. We can barely begin to explain how complex and elaborate getting on to the ferry from Baku to Turkmenistan is, but we will try to do it some justice. In order to fast-track (supposedly) the customs and ferry documentation process, the Mongol Rally drivers are put in touch with the local ‘fixer’, who is a liaison between the ferries officials, the custom officials, and the Mongol drivers. This fixer, Ishmael, has been doing this for 7 years, and has insider information on how to best get onto the next ferry leaving Baku and going to Kazakhstan/Turkmenistan. The unfortunate part, however, is that it is entirely unpredictable when or which ferry you’ll be catching, and so you have to wait on the fixer to get back to you, before there’s any hope of you leaving. This could take one day, it could take 2 days, or in our case several days. We have parked our car in a port since the customs papers have gone through officially declaring our car as out of the country, and are waiting int he hostel for word from the King of the Castle, Ishmael. And holding all of this power, this fixer is not without personality.
Featured Profile: Ishmael The Fixer
Ishmael is a demi-god. The ferries in Baku do not leave without his permission, and the Turkmenistan LOI would not be written the way it was without his wizardry of the written word. Using as few facial muscles as possibe to speak, and displaying as much care as an inanimate object, Ishmael tells us as little as possible to keep us in the lurch, but as much for us to know that he is the vessel for the fountain of knowledge. When he so decides, the ferries will dock, and we will be able to drive our cars onto them, but if he so much feels a single inkling of dissent, the ferries will cease to exist, and perhaps we will too. With a flick of the wrist, he makes the sun shine and the wind blow. The team earnestly awaits his word.
Baku Ferry, Turkmenistan
Queuing for the Ferry
August 1. We met at the Baku Ferry Port at 3 pm as per Ishmael’s command. Of course, as expected, nothing happened for about 30 minutes. The heat was scorching; it reached as high as 40 degrees that day. After 30 minutes, all that was done was a round up of the registered drivers. Ishmael then went over to talk with his ferry official comrades about the latest cricket game, and as per usual, we were left in the dark for as long as time itself. Approximately 2 hours or so later, more information is revealed: the price of seats versus cabins versus VIP suites on the ship. We find out that we will be on the fast ferry (10-12 hours journey) so a temporary rejoice is enjoyed. This is diminished as we soon find out that this is the entirety of the information garnered from the hour and a half of meetings. We sit waiting again in the sweltering heat, desperate for any piece of information that will help us. Absolutely starved of knowledge, we eagerly waited for at least another hour and a half before another meeting was held. Alex from Team Anserimates and Vetty sprint over from the nearby playground where everyone is hanging out to catch Ishmael part way through explaining the visit to the ticket office. After one or two explanatory sentences, they hear the words, “Try not to believe that these are real tickets”. Whether it was the heat, the slight delirium, or the sanity lost from being stuck in Baku for days longer than we expected, these words made Alex and Vetty go a little whacky.
Never too old -Baku playground near the port for the ferry to Turkmenistan.
We had been waiting so long for any information, whatsoever, about these tickets, and this incredibly ambiguous sentence is what came out of Ishmael’s mouth. Baku was going to be the place we would be at for the rest of our lives. The tickets were nothing but fantasy and we were never going to leave.
A stunning night-kissed look at the modern architecture in Baku. In the end we quite enjoyed Baku.
Eventually, only the registered drivers are escorted through the city by foot, to an unmarked office in a hole in the wall. Very official. Sporting the equivalent of two cubicles, a bowl of candy and a couch, the travel agency (?) had the 21 or so registered drivers come in to start an approximately 6 hour process of buying tickets. With little clue what was going on, we crowded into this air conditioned room (god send), and waited for any word on what was happening in the next. The theme of being completely in the dark and starved for information continued. Alex and Vetty enjoyed more candies than their systems could handle, and very graciously accepted giant cups of Chai tea from the lady customs official. 6 hours later with our pockets feeling rather light, the registered drivers could return to the port to deliver the news that the ferry would not be leaving that night, which was expected. We would have to wait until the next night to phone Ishmael once again. Team Formulary 1 continued their entourage with the Anserimates and rechecked into the Guest House Inn to add to their stay of 1+3 nights.
Samir – Super Celebrity Profile
This Azeri man we met at Bella’s Pizza at midnight in downtown Baku in the well-lit corner of a 24/7 supermarket. When hearing our friend Alex from Team Anserimates was American, he said some comments which were both very positive and at the extreme of being explicit. After bursting out laughing, this man gave us a great big smile, and had to join our table. We weren’t sure if he was inebriated on alcohol or just off life, as he was incredibly animated throughout the night. He sat down at our table and took a good look at everyone at the table, and starting dishing off celebrity look alike names. It started off well, “Rafa(el Nadal)” for Kevin, “Mark Zuckerberg” for Dan, “Gareth Bale” for Mike, and then when it came to Alex, “Ugly”. It took an hour and a half of sitting with this guy to figure out that he meant ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. Alex does look like a bit of a gun slinger. Everything that came out of Samir’s mouth was comedic gold; through broken English came both the most heinous things you’ve ever heard in your life and angelic flattery that we wouldn’t dare resist. This 32 year old man, who we assumed to be the manager/owner of the pizza shop, went on to give us 2 free salads, a few free drinks, and a hell of a good laugh. We shared several beers from our 2 2.5 L bottles bought from the supermarket with him, and he got more and more outrageous throughout the night. This night was a never ending lol-lipop.
Our first real day of exploring came the next day as Ishmael had told us to call him the next night so we had a full stress-free-don’t-care-about-the-ferry day. We took this opportunity to take a gander at a miniature book museum and managed to find the only german pub in the whole city.
At 3 a.m. on Monday morning, after arriving in Baku on Wednesday night, we finally left the place. It felt like this would never happen. We honestly thought we were stuck in Baku forever and that the ferry to Turkmenbashi was an old wives’ tale – that we would soon wake up in Baku, it all having been a dream.
The Waiting Game…
When the team finally got on the ferry, it was discovered the cabins weren’t half bad and that the showers had a fine mist which was refreshing. There was a nice lounge area and plenty of time to unwind and play cards. What was a bit disconcerting was that the crew members took our passports, and after some heated debates, it was accepted that they needed them for “customs documentation”. We figured with 30 of us and only a handful of them, if anything shady happened, they would be quickly overcome.
The team caught up on sleep on the ferry and had a tremendous photo shoot in the newly acquired paisley pattern shirts picked up in Baku. The album is up on the book face if you haven’t seen it already.
The New Hit Buoy Band Sensation featuring Sugar Kev, Posh Dan, and Sporty Vetty.
After arriving in Turkmenbashi later than expected (this is an ongoing theme at the moment), we got off the ferry and proceeded to station 1 of the port entry. This station consisted of paying a “bridge tax”: the official said that the tax was 13 dollars, and it could only be paid in pristine American bills. This was the tax for using the ramp to get off the ferry. (??!??!??!???!?) The official gave us an orange sticky note to go on to the next window, where our papers were photocopied and scanned. At least in this window some functions were performed.
After the first station was finished, we moved on to station 2 which was around a construction site and down the road. We waited here for another endless time, around 5-6 hours, to enter the greatest VISA and customs maze ever created. Welcome to the Turkmenistan border crossing.
We need to draw a map out for this one, as there were 9 stations. The first was a VISA station, which was simple enough. Then, for the drivers, you go across the room to an office in between two others, then to the left of that one, then to the right of it, then you go to the bank to pay for your car taxes, then you go to the customs official, then you go to another random room for two stamps, then you go back across to a new room, then back to the customs official, and then you are “done”. This process took at least 2-3 hours. Vetty’s personal favourite was the health check – perhaps it was a fit to drive one, but at one point the official stopped his paper work, took a 2 second stare at Vetty, and then decided, “he’s ok” and checked something off. You then proceed to wait for everyone else to be done in the parking lot while the 45 degree heat absolutely drains you. This wastes another few hours. All in all, from arriving at the port to actually driving on the road in Turkmenbashi, the process probably took around 10 hours. It may have been the longest 10 hours of our lives.
Celebrity Profile: Marty ‘Life of the Party’ Garden Gnome
We never thought we’d say this but we have a 4th addition to the car: Marty the garden gnome. We picked him up in Romania and although small in stature, his persona fills the room. He’s the life of the party and when it comes to lumberjack garden gnomes, no other gnome holds a candle to him. Gorilla glued to to the top of the car, there are bets on how long this resilient garden gnome will last going 135 km/h through wind, dust and rocky roads. He recently took a hiatus from his usual spot when the sweltering desert heat got the better of the Gorilla glue. All in all, the past week has really tested our patience and taught us that North America is actually pretty good in terms of fast-tracking documentation and with their efficiency. If you ever have some time to kill, and you don’t mind waiting completely in the dark without a clue what’s going on, go to Baku and try to get on to a ferry to Turkmenbashi, or try to leave Turkmenbashi once you’re at the port. If you have 10 minutes to live, spend them in one of these two situations, because 10 minutes in these situations feels like an entire life time.
Turkmenistan, The Country
After getting through the border crossing, we straight-shotted it to Derweze and “The Door to Hell”. We’d seen this firey pit in pictures and had been looking forward to this moment for months. “The Door to Hell” is a raging natural gas fire that has been lit since 1971, when Russian petroleum engineers set it on fire as a sort of a shit-disturbing stunt, thinking it would burn out in days. But it didn’t. It’s been burning ever since and doesn’t look like it’s going to be petering out any time soon.
Convoying through the desert with Team Anserimates
We were met by a Jeep owner near the sandy path that led over the dunes to the Door to Hell and had a Déjà vu like moment where the driver was trying to convince us that we would be unable to drive the 2 km down the road to our destination with our cars. We met this announcement with some resistance since in Baku when we went to the mud volcanoes, the taxi drivers tried to convince us of the same thing and we were able to make it up to the site no problem. To solve the problem, we sent Will from Team Anserimates to scout out the path as a passenger in the Jeep, and it was quickly discovered that this time it was legitimate that we wouldn’t be able to go offroad with Michelle. We quickly threw all our camping gear, food and water into this Turkmeni man’s jeep, and after an entertaining, speed-filled ride through the sand to get to the site, we were there.
Our bartering technique with someone who spoke no English at all: writing in the sand.
This site was breathtaking. Being around this roughly 100 m by 100 m flaming pit was rather spiritual and mysterious. We joined Team Anserimates in their quest to toss a Frisbee across the pit; their team initially came together though playing in a Frisbee league in the UAE. Although a thermal draft picked up the Frisbee and it flew down to an immolate death, the toss was quite a spectacle.
The terrific trio being kawai
Later on in the night, Team Anserimates and Formulary 1 took to singing a love song for one of the teammate’s significant others by the fiery passion pit, and together we proceeded to take a questionable photo shoot.
Turkmenistan is a weird and wonderful place. Like entering the world of Wizard of Oz, it really feels like you’re walking through a fantasy world when you’re walking through the capital city of Ashgabat. All the buildings are white and pristine. The cars are similarly pristine because it’s illegal to have a dirty car in the city centre of Ashgabat. Golden statues of the president are frequently seen while driving through the city and water fountains along with other monuments and sculptures are extravagant beyond belief. You’re half amazed/half appalled at the amount of money injected into making the city look other worldly. It really is a spectacular sight; but the other side of the coin is a ghastly one with millions of dollars spent and a large socioeconomic gap.
White, weird, and wonderful Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
The gang walked through the Park of Independence (from Russia), and were blown away by how neat and tidy everything was. The monuments and fountains in the park were stuff of legend, however, not a single soul was in the park but us to appreciate them. A giant monument of the Book of Souls was seen near the centre of the park. With 100 read-throughs of this version of history written and taught nation-wide by the president, you are guaranteed a spot in heaven. A version was sent to space to be immortalized, and there is a history portion on your driver’s test here to ensure that when you drive through Turkmenistan, you know a thing or two about what happened before you from a self-celebratory dictator’s perspective.
View in the Park of Independence.
Later on in the day we visited the Tolkucha Bazaar after a wild goose chase and were disappointed to find a commercialized centre that had replaced the old, open air, busier gong show one. The one described in Lonely Planet included a camel hung from the ceiling, and other authentic sights suggestive of a busy, active and densely populated old-world bazaar. We came to highly organized and separated buildings with 5 squares, which was classic Wizard-of-Oz-Ashgabat. This modern, mall-like version quite the opposite of what we were looking for although we were able to try on some Russian fur hats and authentic Turkmeni dresswear.
Turkmenistan, The People
The lonely planet was not lying about Turkmenistan’s best attribute being its people. We’ve never felt so much friendliness and kindness tom strangers. From people helping us with directions, helping exchange money, driving by and taking photos of us, and someone driving 20 minutes out of their way to lead us to a bazaar. It’s going to take a while for honking to return to it’s traditional road meaning, instead of the Turkmeni car full of people smiling and waving. When we get back home we are going to have to stop ourselves from waving at everyone. On our way out of Ashgabat we came across a fruit salesman. After purchasing a watermelon from the vendor and his son for only 1 U.S. dollar we got to talking. They gifted us an additional melon on top and asked us to take a photo with them.
Right near the border to Uzbekistan we dipped in a little grocery store shack. We spent the last of our money on water and the gang desperately wanted some chips but we didn’t have the money for it. A lot of smiles were exchanged with the most beautiful woman we’d seen in Turkmenistan as Dan jokingly attempted to count in Turkmeni. She was so pretty that Dan went back inside to give her our melon (which probably only had a day left in it anyways). She beamed a radiant smile at Dan that he’ll never forget and muttered ‘Spasiba’, thank you in Russian. Then she handed him the bag of chips that we didn’t have the money for. We have ‘many’ loves for the Turkmeni people.
Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan
A mausoleum near our Bed and Breakfast in Samarkand, Uzbekistan In Samarkand, we visited the Registan, a stunning piece of Uzbekistan architecture and had Uzbeki bread. We were advised before the trip that an absolute must was to try this. This bread tastes like a bagel, but has the size of a baker’s dozen of bagels. Or at least Canadian bagels. Maybe 2 American ones. It also has an interesting pattern in the centre of it with black seeds. After a few misses with bazaars in Uzbekistan, when we went to Tashkent, we hit a home run when going to the Chorsu bazaar. Although it was towards the end of the day, there was still the hussle and bustle we were looking for in a busy market area, and we were able to secure a few choice Uzbeki knives and bowls. There was an authentic meat and fruit market where we got grossed out over an array of cow tongues.
A touch of humanity.
Our time spent in Uzbekistan has been life changing. Never in our lives have we been treated so nicely and had so many people be so genuinely interested in who we are and where we come from. The people in Andijon especially touched our hearts. After gallivanting across the city to find car insurance, we ran into a 20 year old young man named Adam who was kind to biblical proportions. He started by sorting out our sump guard for us for a price that would be considered a steal by any standards, and then went on to help out Team Anserimates with their oil filter, horn and sump guard, for less than 5 American dollars. When offered a few American dollars for a tip, the team of mechanics strictly refused. We were blown away by their integrity and their willingness to help. They seemed to really enjoy just helping us. After fixing up our cars, we invited Adam out for dinner and he and the shop owner who owned most of the car stores on the strip brought us around the corner to a restaurant. We got to know each other a little bit and found out that Adam was leaving in a few weeks for Japan where he would study for the next 6 years to become an auto engineer. He would be leaving his family to train there and then work there afterwards, likely not being able to come back to Andijon to visit his family. Adam, at 20 years old, was pretty much running the shop that was full of men twice or three times his age, and had deft hands and a determined personality to fix whatever problem you might bring through the door. His English was exceptional for only having spoken it for one year, and he went out of his way to help us. We tried to pay for our lunch, but it had already been paid for. We insisted again and again but they would not accept this. It came to the point where it would have been rude to persist and so we graciously accepted this kind gift that likely came to the same price as our car work. Afterwards, Adam and the owner of the auto-repair shops on the strip, Khamadjon, took us to another place to have Plov, a classically Uzbeki dish of fried rice and vegetables.
Adam, the automobile prodigy.
Khamadjon, owner of the auto-repair shops in the Auto Bazaar of Andijon.
This next restaurant was interesting in that we were given a room to eat in, much like a fancy karaoke bar. Black tea, delicious plov, a sensational amount of melons of every variety, and all in all more food than we could possibly stomach was given to us, and after the shock to our stomachs from not eating that amount of food in weeks, we left feeling more than satisfied and maybe a bit uncomfortable. Again, Adam and Khamadjon would not allow us to pay, and were shocked by their kindness.
Plov in all it’s glory.
Khamadjon insisted that members of our group go to a local bazaar. Dan, Kevin and Will ended up going, and it was quickly noticed that every person in the market place knew Khamadjon. Kham He shook all of their hands and it was sensed that this man carried a lot of weight in the community. Khamadjon knew the fruit sellers, the peanut sellers, the meat sellers, and the women knew and loved him. At one point, Khamadjon bought some fruit and it was unsure by the group what he intended on doing with it. Later it was discovered that the fruit was for them. Another kind, selfless act to add to the list.
Adam and Khamadjon took us to a park nearby, where we were able to go back in a time machine and jump into bumper cars, assuming our younger selves. Bump is a bit too tame of a term for what were doing, as people were out there to do some damage. 2 cars were broken in the process.
After a fun night out, Adam invited us back to his house, which was across the street from his car shop, and we slept outside on a shipping container in his backyard, which was a goal of Team Formulary 1 for the trip (in Prague after the Czech Out Party, Kevin and Daniel were forcibly removed from a shipping container by a security officer).
Morning Selfie on a Shipping Container
One thing that has struck us more and more as we have traveled east towards Mongolia, is how much our looks make us appear as aliens/celebrities. If we stand in the same spot for long enough, a crowd will spontaneously form and mesmerized eyes will set, no stare, at us for prolonged periods of time. After some time of building up courage, members of the crowd will ask for a selfie with us or a picture, and then thank us for taking a picture with them. One little boy in a torquiose shirt in Andijon, took this creeping to a new level. Just as you would finish an activity to do with the car, you would look up and have this boy staring at you with his mouth half open and his eyes of infinite darkness, and this blank expression on his face. It would scare the living daylights out of you. He would show up out of nowhere and you would have no idea how long he had been there. Vetty is still worried that this kid will show up in his window at home in the middle of a dark and stormy night.
Soon after crossing the border, two things became quickly apparent about Kyrgyzstan. One being the abundance of horses everywhere, and the second how stunningly beautiful the drive was. Kyrgyzstan without a doubt has been the best driving of the trip so far. The rolling mountains were literally baffling at some points, producing some meditative thought processes in our car. Each one of us took turns getting lost in the profound scenery that the Kyrgyzstan countryside had to offer.
We ended up wanting to camp at Toktogul reservoir, and after realizing how windy and dusty it was near the lake, we opted to drive up the hill and talk with the owner of a restaurant. He graciously allowed us to use his restaurant as a wind blocker and after setting up our tents and gear, we went for dinner and to play cards in his restaurant. One problem arose however: none of us speak any Russian or Tajik. After a classic exchange of “I don’t know what you’re talking abouts” and our intense desire for dumplings, various members of the team tried to charade what a dumpling looked like. Several failed attempts later, Will from Team Anserimates took a coke bottle cap and wrapped it in a serviette, and finally, we had victory. It was a grand victory indeed. Coming back from this trip, any game of charades involving members of either car will simply be unfair from all our practice.
View from the Restaurant
Also at the Restaurant, a French hitchhiker that we had drinks with.
Later in the night, some locals were sharing vodka by our tents and motioned us over to join them. This was a stark contrast to the religious vibe and strictly no alcohol atmosphere inside the restaurant. After a bit of dissing by the locals about Canadians not accepting vodka or not drinking enough of it, it was sensed that an arm wrestling competition was apt. Both groups put one delegate forward. In the blue corner stood Vetty, a petite rugby aficionado. In the red corner, stood Mischka, a dominating, colossal fisherman and straight up intimidating character. After a series of competitions, Vetty came out as champ and made the Canadians proud.
Vetty moments before his greatest triumph, for Canada.
After a long day of driving, our 2nd night was spent on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul . We woke up early, and with our hearts swelling, sang a love song with Team Anserimates for one of their biggest contributors for donations. Check out our Facebook page for where we will share the video. Planning on getting out of the camp site early since we were several days behind based on our schedules, we fired up the cars and we were on our way. If only it were that easy. Team Anserimates got stuck in the sand by the lake and their right front tire was spinning in circles going nowhere. We tried placing a few rocks behind the tire to get some traction going, and using the might of all 6 members to get the car moving. None of this worked, and so finally, after an hour or so, two members went to grab 2 by 4s from preteens in a village close by and this did the trick.
One thing you have to get used to on the Mongol Rally is that whatever you schedule, you better add in at least 40-60% more time to account for unforeseen delays and for factors out of your control. Whether it’s a blown tire, border crossing, or hospital visit, these sort of situations will lead to some long make-up drives. That’s what happened to us. We now start a deadly 40 hour or so constant drive from Lake Itsikal to Semey in order to get back on the schedule.
Some Kyrgyzstan scenery
Bonus picture of Michelle the mare with a choice, chedda as, backdrop.
Kazakhstan and Russia
Team Formulary 1 and Team Anserimates in Russia, near the Mongolian border.
Passing into Kazakhstan through the Kyrgyz-Kazakh crossing was hilarious. One of the first guards we came across was doing pullups on the walk way, and so of course, the team joined him. He told us that we had to do at least 10 to impress him. Some of the members were able to do so, and he proceeded to talk about how he did 150 a day, and that he was a DOTA (video game) champion. Expecting an intense border crossing, this was a nice change up. He then signed our car stating that Kazakhstan had the biggest heart of all the countries, and like many people we have come across, wanted our instagram and social media pages. One other conversation shared at this border crossing included a guard talking about how he had seen Snoop Dogg live, but that one of his main life aspirations was to see Eminem some day. Super serious stuff.
After crossing the border, we had some daunting driving to do. Altogether, the drive from lake Issyk-Kul to Semey was about 40 hours. This drive was full of construction sites, pot holes and some pretty miserable roads. Some potholes were the size of 4 manholes put together, and Team Anserimates ended up getting one tire, and almost 2 tires completely blown up from hitting one. Apart from 2 hours of sleep near Semey, and the odd intermittent nap in the car, we went practically 2 days without any sleep. We would have been tired if it wasn’t for the rocket fuel on steroids that is German engineered ‘Terminator’ Energy drinks (lol).
There’s something deeply contemplative about driving for long periods of time. Each of the three amigos took turns philosophizing about deep material such as “where is the peanut butter”, “can you turn up the music”, and “am I hearing a flat tire?”.
At a Kazakhstan gas station about half way through the long haul drive, Vetty and Dan lost it a little bit and had a dance off at a gas station. Adorning moves that would most definitely get you kicked out of the bar for throwing off the vibe, and ones that weirded the hell out of the gas station worker, it was nice to let loose in such a random context.
Less than a day was spent in Russia getting to the Mongolian border crossing. This is where the adventure starts.
Here are some beautiful views from the drive:
Kazakhstan, the road leading to Russia.
Kazakhstan cow cheering us on.
Kevin checking out the wares on a tourist shop stop in Russia.
Michelle near the Russia-Mongolia Border.
Michelle with the rest of the gang, Team Formulary 1.
Team Formulary 1 and Team Anserimates in Russia
Camping at the border just a few km from Mongolia.
Camping at the border just a few km from Mongolia.
Mongolia: Part 1
WE MADE IT! 17 countries and 8000 miles later, we finally made it to what this rally is all about: desolate, beautiful, vast Mongolia. Everything up until this point has merely been a lead up to this exquisite landscape of rolling hills, Gers, herds of goats, sheep, yaks, cows and horses, and impossibly large areas of nothingness.
A classic Mongolian scene of vast nothingness.
Gers are these white huts you find all over the countryside that most Mongolians live in. They look incredibly modest and uniform on the outside, and the wealth of each family is shown on the inside. They only span roughly 20 feet by 20 feet.
A Classic Ger (some of the richer one’s have a solar panel and satellite dishes).
On the first night of driving, we had to travel across 3 rivers. We had had varying advice on how to cross them, the depth of them, and whether or not we would need tractors to get across. The first river was easy. We crossed a small stream of water babbling through mostly sand and scoffed at how easy Mongolia would be. When we reached the second river our lols (once again) turned to bawls. It appeared to be around mid shin depth, full of rocks, and about 15-20 feet across. Scouts were sent from both cars and it was decided there was only one thing to do. YOLO it. With fire behind the wheels, Team Anserimates flew towards the river. They made it about half way and then became unbelievably stuck. More stuck than we were in Baku. After some failed pushing and soaking wet clothes, it was decided that we would need help. We, Team Formulary 1, traveled to the closest village, and asked people for help to tow, but came up empty handed apart from a weird hard cheesy bread from a family living in a Ger. No one took part in eating this apart from Dan. Classic.
Team Anserimates getting stuck in River numero 2.
When we came back to the river, Team Anserimates had been towed over for money. We stared at their car, separated by 20 feet and a river. There stood a large divide between the two teams, the largest distance we had been apart for weeks. Our relationship had never been so distant and we had never felt so alone.
At that point we had to find a way across. A truck pulled up and (poorly translated) negotiations started between Kevin and the leader of the group on what would be a reasonable price. A heated debate started that took the same length as negotiating a bomb threat.
Eventually Dan and Mike joined in on the negotiations after huddling in the car eating cold baked beans and a reasonable price was decided upon for just the first river. Tow rope ready to go, the truck began to drag us into the river. With enough stuff in our car to make a great clown car act, we were unable to see their car in the rear view mirror, and with pitch darkness to boot, the truck started to pull and then stopped suddenly, with us backing into the back left of their car. The owner jumped out of the car and started throwing his arms around like a madman, yelling something along the lines of “”My machina”, and pointing at what looked like the smallest dent in the world. After pulling out a high-powered microscope, the team realized that this was all an act, and denied the 500 American dollars the Mongolia madman was claiming for this fatal death-defying car crash. Eventually we were reunited with Team Anserimates on the other side of the river and the disgruntled Mongolian man left us with a swear or two under his breath.
She’s taken a beating but never got hurt coming into Russia. Then Mongolia hits. And it hits hard. This is the story of Michelle, and the absolute battle we had on day 2 in Mongolia while navigating thick mud, potholes, random divots, rivers, and terrain that would test any rally car. Let alone a Toyota Yaris.
Michelle in Mongolia
To be honest, we had been pretty damn lucky with car troubles up until Mongolia. We’re trying to remember a week into Mongolia how many issues we had had at this point, and we guess around 1-2 easily reparable flat tires, and that’s IT. Literally nothing else. Several other cars had to withdraw in the Mongol Rally due to mechanical problems and many have taken a serious beating up until this point (including a Porsche that erupted into flames in Turkmenistan), but our trusty Toyota Yaris Michelle has been incredibly reliable partly because we have treated her really well and partly because she’s one independent and resilient woman.
Michelle, ne me quitte pas
Through rivers and valleys, rocks and nooks, we’ve gone so far Michelle. To leave us now would be an absolute tragedy. Think of the travels to come, the lengths we still have to go; if you give up on us now these experiences will never take place. Through 16 countries and on to the last, we’ve been through so much. We’ve had so many happy memories together and inside jokes, you know we get along so well. Everyone knows it. Before you give up, you have to think about what those memories mean to you and really push through this rough patch. Admittedly, I’ve wronged you. I took our relationship in a direction I didn’t entail and after a rash decision, I hurt you in a way you’ve never been hurt before. I hit a rocky patch of ground and then it sunk into a pothole, and before I knew it, your roofbox exploded. I didn’t intend for this to happen but it did. You lost your mind so to speak when I did this to you. We zap strapped the parts of your mind that weren’t lost forever in the wreckage, but I know you were still hurt. You promised that if I changed my ways, you could continue forward. We continued forward, creeping this time, but as things go, after some time, I made the same mistake again. This time, a deeper part of you got hurt. Your exhaust pipe dangled beneath you, close to the ground, where your heart would stay forever. Zap strapped again, and another apology, you were able to trudge forward. But you weren’t quite the same. You didn’t smile quite the same way. You weren’t yourself. But being the forgiving, graceful lady you are, you agreed begrudgingly that it might still work. And then the unthinkable happened, I broke you. Not only were your bumpers down, you were vulnerable with no shield to protect you, all the while, your mud flaps fluttering in the wind.. and then.. I did something unforgiveable. I hit your chassis so hard that it bent into the drive belt. I had delivered the final blow. The one I couldn’t sweet talk my way out of. The hole I could never dig myself out of. You sat motionless, emotionless, unable to start up again. I worried that you would never be yourself again. That you would never get back to the radiant, other-worldly, resilient Michelle that I know. Michelle, ma belle, my beautiful belle, I had lost you. Forever. I sat beside you, having nothing to say. No zap strap could fix this problem. There was nothing that could be done.
Devastated, impossibly alone, and defeated. You were ruined, but if it’s possible, I was worse. To harm such a beautiful woman in so many ways in the way that I did, there’s no coming back from that. You allowed me to travel to places I had never seen before; the experiences we had together made me grow as a person. In this way you will always be a part of me. You were the first car and only car I think I could ever love. An infinite darkness swept over me like a suffocating blanket. I couldn’t breathe and when I lost you, I lost myself. I couldn’t possibly survive. With one last breath, I said goodbye, and I gave in.
But that’s not where the story ends. In an impossible darkness with no hope in sight and no light to guide me, I was well and truly lost. Time stood still and a part of me that thought I would never be saved. People drove towards me and like I was invisible, they sped by. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t an entity, I was nothing. And then it happened. I thought at first that it was a mirage. That ray of light came over the horizon in a blue caravan. Barely visible in the distance, this shed of light was enough to penetrate through the darkness. Powerful beyond measure, this ray of light spread over me. Servants of the lord of light came out of the caravan and to Michelle and my breathless, dead bodies. Michelle could not be moved, emotionally or otherwise. But this light gave me strength. It gave me hope. The members of the caravan of light gave me that extra push to get you going Michelle. From a crawl, to one knee, and then the other, and finally a walk, we pushed you forward, gaining more and more power with each step. We were finally moving forward again. You still weren’t the same but I could gather a hint of a smile coming from your lips. That’s all I needed.
We continued forward, carefully, you not saying a word and me making sure to treat you carefully and like you deserved. I could never do what I did to you again. You were too special. As we picked up speed, things started to feel the same again. But I could tell you were still deeply hurt. It was so hard for you to move forward. So I got out. I gave you some distance and thought long and hard about how I could help you. An idea came to me. I could use the jack to force the weight of you onto your sump guard and bend your chassis well away from your drive belt, making sure you could never go into that dark place again. I hoped with all my heart that it would work. Slowly, but surely, you found your legs, but this time they weren’t crippled, they were really your legs. You were finally, after all these trials and tribulations, able to be yourself again. I was overjoyed in a way you’ll never understand to see this. To see you being you again. I will never, ever, let me or anyone else do this to you again. I will live and fight and die to see Michelle, ma belle, be the most beautiful thing in this world of endless beauty right to the end. Til death do us part (or until we scrap you in Ulan Ude).
The Great Decline of Michelle our Belle
Us trying to put Michelle’s brain back together (post-roof box explosion).
Kevin trying to fix the exhaust pipe which must have broken loose about 10 times.
Dan looking sheepish after he rammed Michelle into a mound. This was the famed hit that took out her front bumper, and bent her chassis towards the drive belt creating sparks everywhere and problems for those zany Team Formulary 1 boys.
Some of the damage up close. Bungee cords wrapped from the chassis to the front bumper in a feeble attempt to keep the chassis away from the drive belt.
We decided to keep our front bumper and ziptye it to the car for the Russian border. We wanted to make it seem like our Michelle was in fighting fit condition. More on how miserably we failed at that next blog post.
Vetty repairing the exhaust pipe again.
A weird part about Mongolia is that some of the areas of driving are an absolute nightmare to navigate, and then you have these long stretches of road like from Ulaanbataar to Ulan-Ude or from the ancient capital to Ulaanbataar that are the nicest highways you’ve ever driven on. One of the highways earlier in the trip in western Mongolia was smoother than a baby’s bottom. It was smoother than James Dean. It was smoother than Kevin’s forearms even.
In the first few days of Mongolia, we stayed in one of the nicest camping sites we’ve ever been to. For kilometers and kilometers there was absolute nothing. It was a desolate wasteland but so spectacularly beautiful at the same time.
The change in scenery in Mongolia was astounding.
More Mongolian Scenery.
The area where that took off Michelle’s roof box.
More Mongolia. When there were nice roads in Mongolia, they were the NICEST roads we have ever been on. There was not a single crack in the road and not a single other driver. It was incredible, smooth driving and was very short-lived.
This is a classic thing to see as we drove by. We’d always get waves.
This is a family’s entire possessions, including their Ger, all packed up.
This guy and his son helped us to the river but as soon as we got stuck, peaced out in a hurry, never to be seen or heard from again.
Sometimes we get bored while driving. Dan turned to Vetty and said “see that big hill in the distance, lets drive it”. Without a second though, Vetty drove across the unpaved dry field to the hill and gunned it up (only making it this far up).
Helping out some Mongolians who got stuck in the insanely muddy roads. It took us about 3 hours to drive 3 km on this day.
More Muddy Mongolian Madness. This tow rope must have snapped 3 or 4 times before they finally got the other truck unstuck.
Our good old friends, the Team Anserimates, going and testing out the route for us (and of course getting stuck doing so).
Our good old friends, the Team Anserimates, going and testing out the route for us (and of course getting stuck doing so).
Mongolia: Part 2
We never did write a part 2 or an ending to this saga, so you’re just going to have to settle for some photos of us at the finish line.
Kevin ‘The Driver’ Nickel
Daniel ‘The Navigator’ Raff
Mike ‘The Muscle’ Vettey