Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bordering on Madness

As Tom says, 90% of life is turning up. For the past week we’ve been pushing ahead by referring to maps and as much following our instincts. The alternative is to sit, plan, discuss, debate, decide and then get lost anyway. Dwight Eisenhower said, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” In life things on the ground are often different enough that you have to fall back on preparatory research, of which we have plenty, in order to move forward. We looked at the map, made the calculations and agreed that we’d head due north from Constanta instead of heading inland and zig-zag our way to the Romanian border with Moldova and on to the Ukraine. We bumped into a couple of other rally cars that went the long way around and ended up where we were in about the same length of time - but at least we had managed to see the wind farms, gigantic salt marshes, storks, and take a ferry ride across the mouth of the Danube for 21 Lei. Feeling positive, we pulled up at the border and shortcut our way into the EU line where the very friendly guards reviewed our papers and waved us through. Crossing the bridge into Moldova an argument broke out between a Russian and a border guard. So vehement was their exchange that we sneaked up 10 car lengths and wormed our way in ahead of the non-EU passport holders. Not that it did us any good. 

Swifty’s title, the so-called V5, hadn’t come back from Swansea by the time Mike left for the Continent. Furthermore our savior, Jim, was the registered keeper of the car for tax and insurance purposes. All things combined we turned up at the Moldovan border with an old V5, no letter of authorization (with a stamp, gotta have a stamp) and no Green Card showing proof of insurance outside the EU. The V5 we suspected might be an issue, the authorization was obvious and something we should have predicted, and the Green Card was, let’s just say, a lack of research. 

The Moldovans were clear: incomplete paperwork, no crossing the country (a 30 minute drive). But they were very nice - reminding us that Moldova wasn’t part of the EU and, no, there is no way to get to Ukraine without going through Moldova. We were presented with a souvenir “Refusal of Crossing of the State Border by Foreign Citizens” and told by the customs agent, to “have a nice trip.” Back on the Romanian side we orbited Galati for a hotel for the weekend and called Jim for help. Meanwhile, we started planning all the things we’d have to do on Monday when the shops opened up. 

Romanian Beach Party

A team from Romania called the ParaMongols, the Undercover Paramedics for Mongolia, used social networking to great effect and put on a blast of a beach party. Vama Veche is a well known, at least in these parts, hippie beach just north of the border with Bulgaria. Over the years, like so many hippie enclaves, the regular tourists are muscling in. But for now it retains the sense of free spirited on-the-beach camping, optional swimsuits and do as you like as long as you’re cool-ness. The ParaMongols went all out. A team of five students, none of whom are paramedics incidentally, pulled together a full stage show with lighting, two bands (that we remembered), disco interludes, a secured campsite and free showers for any of the Rallyists that turned up. In the end we were about 20-odd cars and a half dozen motorcycles, along with 40-50 of the ParaMongols’ support party and a bunch of other holiday makers. The bar was serving beer at 5 Lei a pint (that’s about $1.50 US) and we cemented friendships with a few of the teams we’d met at the Czech out party. Aside from being over 50, attached, and pretty knackered after the early start, we were all set to have a good time. By the looks of things if we’d been half our ages, unattached and a little more with it we would probably still be there. By midnight and a couple shots of Triple Sec and Stroh’s 80 rum more than we should have had, we crashed into our tents and slept until the sun baked us out again. A skinny dip in the Black Sea (hey, when in Romania, do as they do), followed by a shower and a big breakfast we were ready to hit the road for Odessa. Or so we thought… 

Putting the Car in Carpathia

We broke camp to make the ten hour drive to Vama Veche.  We decided to shorten our route by forgoing the scenic drive over Transfăgărășan pass and instead took the “main” road through the Carpathians. Our two-lane road snaked up and down sleepy steep-sided river valleys covered in a thick layer of deciduous forest.  Another beautiful region of Romania. The going was slow despite the good roads… a steady line of trucks meant passing was fruitless, so we took in the view, tried copying the gesture of the many hitchhikers along the way (sort of a slow-down style palm-down wave) and bought a plump round of a strong smokey cheese from under a roadside umbrella. 

You can buy just about anything along the side of this road – stands offered fresh cheese, watermelons, and gnomes. People lean out into the roadway offering berries, nuts, keys to rooms for rent, and some would just like you to pay for their company. I pulled the car over so Mike could stop to adjust the nipple on the water jug only to see a woman on the other side of the road making the same adjustment on herself so she could strike an even more compelling pose for the next driver coming her way.

Our progress was steady until our tour of Carpathian splendor came to an abrupt stop. Road construction.  We waited. Then waited a little more. The heat of the day slowly crept in and began to cook us right in our seats. After an eternity, Mike took action and hopped out of the car to see if leaving our hot little capsule would  start traffic again. It worked like a charm… he gets no more than 30 feet from Swifty and the line of cars started moving. Our joy was punctuated by two jolly rally cars pulling up next to us offering hearty greetings. We rolled through the remaining hills watching the occasional local filling up at water spigots poking out of the valley walls.

We pulled in to Vama Veche tired and bleary from the road. I discovered that Mike has a skill, or more accurately, a passion for driving in the “chaos” model.  In southeast Romania it works like this: two lanes of traffic enter a busy intersection. From that point, it’s all out aggression: extreme automotive combat that would make power forwards in the NBA jealous. It’s all positioning, bluffing, and accelerating with no braking allowed. Four cars abreast then five, and finally funneling back down to two lanes.  It’s a bit like the traffic in India, but the Romanians have confined it to busy intersections. A few hours of that can wear down both passenger and driver. The first cool beer on the beach was sublime as we relaxed in our cabana with wifi and gratefully called home after a long day.

Dog Daze

Dogs in Romania are unlike any we have seen. They wander about apparently without owners, but they wander with a purpose. They all seem to have a mission and are doggedly pursuing it. Besides that they are insufferably cute. So cute in fact we wondered why Disney hadn’t made a film about them already - or perhaps they have. They roam off-leash and benignly approach you looking for love or food, or preferably both. Generally these dogs are not large, mostly less than 50 lbs. and many look like a cross between a dachshund and a chihuahua. At the border crossing to Moldova there was a small pack wandering from car to car looking for handouts. They had figured out that where there were long lines of cars, people either dropped food or held out a morsel now and again. In Vama Veche we saw one little guy walking off towards town like a retired postman might head for the pub. The dogs don’t fight, but rather seem to work as a team - the small ones at the front to soften the heartstrings, the larger ones coming up behind to act as the muscle just in case. The few dogs we’ve seen on leashes seem a comparatively unhappy lot, yearning perhaps for the freedom of their bohemian brethren. Perhaps, but most of the pups were very thin and looked like they needed a good bath and dose of flea powder. Not unlike a Mongol Rallyist after a few weeks on the road, I’ll wager. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Is that the Transylvania Station?

On the border of Romania along the E60 sits Oradea, a place that isn’t even nice to be from. The stench of the fields mingles with the acrid smoke of the steel works to form what can only have be a lethal sulphur/methane cocktail that is best enjoyed while sitting in one of the extensive traffic jams that surround the town. Small wonder the Hungarians handed it over to the Romanians in the 1920’s. We reminded ourselves that we really want to like Romania; it is after all the first place we had to show our passports and Swifty’s documents. Within 50 kilometers we were rewarded with some of the most beautiful scenery on the trip so far. Transylvania’s quaint villages, rolling forested hills, hand hewn hay ricks and horse drawn carts are straight out of Young Frankenstein. What’s more we’re feeling really good about fulfilling our quest for a fortune teller. 
The language here appears more familiar and the tones more southern, pastels and terracottas.  The roads, despite warnings to the contrary, are just fine. While they are still building some of the nicest highways in Europe those main arteries aren’t linked all the way to Bucharest, yet. However, the main roads are in generally good shape and the drivers quick on the horn if in their opinion you’re moving too slowly. Waking up with the sun after a restful night in a field of wildflowers, blue asters and white cow parsley, gave us a charming lesson in sustainability. A handsome couple well into their 70’s pulled up softly with their horse to gather some feed, he with a scythe and she with a pitchfork. They took 20 minutes to fill their buckboard and then left us with a smile and a wave. 


Knocking off Slowakia in a matter of minutes meant missing all of Bratislava, a place to visit if only to say the word - Bratislava. It sounds cool. Yet, miss it we did. From there it was on to Hungary and a coin toss. Having spent a good portion of the day working on Swifty and finalizing her preparations, we were finally ready to hit the road in earnest. 
The EU really believes it is a United States and therefore the free movement of people across borders is now a given. The large creaking customs posts rust slowly as the long grass grows up between the cobblestones. Not an official soul in sight and we keep moving. Our passports have not been checked since Mike landed in Heathrow and Tom in Reykjavik. We could be anywhere right now, and indeed the miles flew by as Tom piloted us first to Buda and from there made a beeline for Pest. As any tourist will tell you the biggest challenge in many European cities is figuring out where you are at any point in time. In Pest it was also a challenge for a friendly local from whom we’d asked directions. Given Hungarian’s incredibly dense use of diphthongs, accent marks, and umlauts, reading the streets signs became more a matter of consilient interpretation. Fortunately, our  random stranger spoke nearly perfect English and after a moment’s orientation pointed us back to where we had just come from. After a few ‘P’ turns and near misses we pulled up outside the Queen Mary Hotel, which once again proved the value of Lonely Planet guides. Dinner of local specialities in a local cafe was concluded with our waitress tossing a coin for who was going to move the car at 8am. Coming up horse and rider meant Mike got another 10 minutes in bed. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Carpool Tunnel

As I type I have just relaxed my hands long enough from the panic strap to write a few words with my head buried in my laptop. Looking up induces palpitations as Tom keeps Swifty floored and redlined in an effort to make up for my somewhat more meandering approach to the adventure. Having traveled pretty widely with Tom, on reflection I realized that I’d only ever driven short distances with him. - including one occasion when we mistakenly followed the instructions on a GPS system and wound up a half hour late for a company dinner. Fortunately the blurred Czech countryside is more like low Bavarian Alps and not terribly interesting. So putting my head down and keeping the blog up is a restful alternative to paying any attention to my surroundings. Cue Carmen and raise the volume. 
Thus far our journey today has consisted of an eight kilometer run to a restaurant for ham and eggs, a pause for four new Barum tyres, a drive through tour of Prague and a kielbasa stop on the way to Bratislava. Thankfully, quite a few of the locals speak German, because they sure as heck don’t speak much English here. That allows me to brush up on my only foreign language while not feeling completely useless. Tom speaks Spanish. Which means, at the frequent times when my German and English come to naught and I have induced complete misunderstanding in the other party, he gesticulates wildly and jabbers away. As a rule it’s been very effective. 

What Makes a Mongol Rallyist?

The launch at Goodwood and the Czech Out party were both perfect opportunities for us to meet other teams and make summary judgments about their personalities. There are any number of diplomats, spies and secret agents, geeks, car nuts and students undertaking the rally this year, although not nearly as many as The Adventurists bumpf would have you believe (by our calculations we think there’s about 250-ish cars participating). But about half way through the party last night we decided that there isn’t really a stereotype. Granted that some 80% of participants are male, young, and in various states of (un)employment. Indeed, several chaps had quit their jobs in order to participate. We have met three other American teams, one of whom we decided is on a mission from the US State Department. In a process of deduction we found out that all three were students, two of something called ‘International Relations’, and one from Dubai working an internship for big pharma. Their car was shipped over and was licensed in Virginia, home to among other things the CIA. They are in good company with representatives from both the UK government and the Canadian Foreign and Commonwealth office. All these teams shared a goal of taking the long way around the ‘Stans to Mongolia. We report, you decide.  
In our conversations we met deckhands for millionaires, lawyers, engineers, and lots of students off for a lark. Tom and I raise the rally’s median age by about 25 years and although we’ve seen a couple of other geezers, as a group the over 50’s are very much in the minority. Other sweeping generalizations include a lack of mechanical, language and geographical skills, a general enthusiasm for life and above all a sense of adventure. Rally on! 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Pre-Czech Out Party Check In

From Goodwood to Klatovy in under two days. The rally is officially on! Starting Friday night your correspondent camped near Goodwood Racecourse and started getting into the spirit of things. Drinking beer until midnight with a few fellow rallyists and Twitter followers meant a somewhat slow start in the morning, but appropriate for the send off. Goodwood, for those of you not in the know is one of England’s oldest automobile racing tracks. The annual Festival of Speed is a motor racing event not to be missed. The Adventurists, organizers of the Mongol Rally, arranged the UK launch party and called it the Festival of Slow - ha ha. About 130 cars, ambulances and firetrucks gathered together to collect their teams and in some cases their passports in preparation for the off. Mike’s sister Vicky came down and together they joined a phalanx of cars on a complete circuit of the track; the record for which was set back in the 1970’s at 58 seconds - we were doing no such thing in our three minutes of fame. 
From there it was off to the Eurotunnel to France, Belgium and Germany to collect Tom at Frankfurt airport followed by a breakneck zoom down the Autobahn, “Oh, the numbers on the speedometer are in miles per hour on this car, not kilometers!” said Tom, and on into the Bohemian Alps and the Czech Republic in time for the beer tent to open. Busy time - I think I’ll go lie down now. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Time to Go

For something that’s taken nine months to organize, quite why there’s all this last minute rushing around is a bit of a mystery. There’s the roof rack, bungee cords and rope, a full medical kit, yep - with sutures and billy tins, oh and knives and forks and cups for tea and sleeping bags, and gas cans that we’ll get in the east, water carriers and duct tape and spare bulbs for the continent along with high visibility jackets, but what about the spanners, and keys - the garage never found the spare - where is that switch for the inverter and what about charging the cameras anyway, oh and the paperwork with several copies of the passport, a V5 with someone else’s name and evacuation insurance with an emergency contact half a world away, and no, we’re not taking weapons - what is the matter with you people - an international driving permit, two more driver’s licenses and guidebooks in PDF format, lots of books for small kids in English as gifts for when we get there, maps of the route, let’s hope that Tom remembers them, tickets for the EuroTunnel, cash and equivalents, health card, immunization records, computer, cell phone - well that will need a card when we get there - last minute post to the one I love on Facebook, oh and check the pressure in the spare, fill the back with camping gear, an air mattress and seam sealer, don’t forget the matches, what else is there, probably nothing that can’t be bought on the road once we’re underway. A special thanks to everyone that’s helped, donated and otherwise made this possible. Remember, it’s all for the kids…

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Second Sight

No monumental undertaking like the infamous Mongol Rally should be approached without the help of paranormal prescience. In our case it meant putting all doubts to one side and at last taking a friend’s recommendation and paying a visit to the best medium in town. Truth be told I’d never been to a psychic and was a little nervous about what might be ‘seen’ under my terrestrial hood, so to speak. Presenting herself as a well found woman of late middle age with a small, desktop fountain and spa muzak burbling away in the background, my clairvoyant used psychometry to peer into my soul. No tarot card reader or crystal ball gazer, she borrowed an object that I keep with me constantly and used it to see symbols and pictures relating to my life. She closed her eyes meaningfully as she started to describe my personality and then what I was involved in. Taking the option to record the session left me with a complete record, but rather than bore you with all the details, the executive summary is she saw success in our venture. That’s it. That’s good. But that was about it. 
There was some stuff about delays at some kind of border. Really? At six borders in eastern Europe? Delays? I’m pretty certain that I read something about that on the Adventurists web site. And she saw lots of photographs - we are going to max out the Facebook upload engine shortly. What was really disappointing, though, was that the Mongol Rally wasn’t looming larger in my parapsychological life. She kind of backed into it after a poke a travel generally - something about a move, lots of business travel and finding a place with an ocean view (wanting to give up work entirely, buy a boat and set sail apparently counts for all of these things, but nothing to do with the Mongol Rally). Yet, her practical advice of having all our paperwork in order and being sure to carry a spare tyre to minimize delays was somehow oddly reassuring. 
Finally, she said the journey would end in discovering something that wasn’t ostensibly the point of the trip. That led me to wonder what the hell was the point of the trip? Charity? Adventure? Self discovery? Because it’s there? Sheer ballsy stupidity? All of the above? Perhaps our next seer will have deeper insights into that part of the journey.