Mongol Rally 2004 & 2005 Blogs & Photos

Part 1 - Hills, Cows and Oil (London to Baku)

We are currently in Baku, in Azerbaijan, and planning to get a ferry to Turkmenbashi, in Turkmenistan, tonight.  Less than 2 weeks ago we were in Hyde park, at the rally launch, surrounded by 40 other cars ranging from Morris Minors, a 3 wheeled Reliant and several Fiat Pandas to our beast, a Suzuki SJ410.  This is an almost wonderous vehicle, 4wd with a tiny 970cc engine, it feels like you are off-roading on even the flattest bit of motorway.  It won’t happily go much above 55mph and has a turning circle that compares unfavourably with a double-decker bus.  On the plus side it is a bright toothpaste green colour with a soft top and comfortable seats stolen by the previous owner from a rather sporty Toyota.  Having called our team The Infinite Improbability Drive we had little choice but to take up the suggestion of painting Don’t Panic in large pink letters on the bonnet.
The launch was great fun, with lots of people there to see us off.  Having left Hyde park our fellow ralliers caused all sorts of chaos around London, sadly we just got caught in the resulting traffic. One unintentional detour into the long stay car park at Waterloo notwithstanding we escaped London and made for Dover and the Ferry.  From Calais we headed to Prague, along some very monotonous motorways.  The first problem appeared, in the form of an oil leak, somewhere in Germany.  We very sensibly managed to leave our Haynes manual, and thus our only way of identifying what most of the bits of the engine were, under the car in a service station while examining the leak, and drove off.  After 750 miles we undertook our first overtaking manoeuvre, an oil lorry going uphill which promptly overtook us again as soon as we got to the top.  After 850 miles, and 26 hours or so, we got to Prague.  It is a wonderful city, oozing faded charm.  It also has a fiendish one-way system.  We were meant to sign in at a cafe somewhere, all we knew was that it was called Bohemia Bagel, and that it was near the castle.  It took 2 hours to find, during which we managed to honk our horn several times at a policeman, who Harry had mistaken for another rallier (bright colour, stickers, flashing lights...) and had inadvertently managed to drive on to a tram platform, which was full of people.  All good.  Signed in, said hello and set off again.  Eastern Europe is fairly flat and featureless, we trundled through Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and into Bulgaria without much incident, or really stopping for long.
In Bulgaria we went to see some friends, Matt and Jenny, who are rebuilding a chalet in a beautiful ski town called Bansko.  At the minute it looks like it was bombed in the war, and has not been looked at since.  It will have great potential.  Luckily there was a hotel next door.  It was great to catch up.  We also discovered that the local mafia have number-plates with 3 identical numbers in them.  We have been seeing large black vehicles like this ever since.  I don't think it is the same one.  On setting off the next morning we managed to take the wrong road out of Bansko, and were heading fast for Greece.  Unfortunately I was rather engrossed in Harry Potter, rather than the map, so it took me an hour to notice.  The mountains are stunning at least.  Once back on the right road we managed to meet up with team Buzzwagon, Chris and Dave, who have exactly the same vehicle as us, and with whom we have been ever since.
Turkey next, and an overnight drive to Istanbul, arriving at about 7 in the morning.  It is a fantastic city, heaving with life, and a great assortment of fantastic buildings.  We dispensed with sleep, still buzzing from the bustling fight that was the drive in, and went sight seeing.  After various incidents, a Turkish bath, beer on an empty stomach and over 36 hours with no sleep we were very glad of our beds.  The next day we got off the motorway, and headed for the coast.  The coastal road was fantastic fun, with steep hills running down into the sea, and hairpin bends all the way.  It also meant 30 mph all the way, and was roundly voted the best day so far.  It was even more exciting at night, each time we came down the hill in to a small village there would be cows, horses, dogs, cats and people all wandering around in the middle of the road.  The only casualty this time was a cat, which ran under the wheels, but more on roadkill later.
The second half of Turkey was flatter, and suffering from a bit of urban sprawl. Then came Georgia, and an immediate change in scenery, people and architecture as soon as we crossed the border.  It is a stunning country, with huge tree covered hills covering most of its area. We made a brief stop for a swim, making the black sea even blacker, before heading inland. Deteriorating roads also began to kick in properly here, always adding to the excitement.  You can always judge how bad they are by how easy it is to turn the volume button on the stereo.  Bits of the country were hugely depressed, with half of one place being a proper ghost town.  Seemingly every building was abandoned. Any people we met were greatly cheerful and enthusiastic though, they are a proud country.  We stopped at a restaurant on the road that night, and sat outside suspended over a stream.  The impression was enforced when the people gathered at a table nearby began to sing Bulgarian folk songs, harmonising and all, amongst themselves.  It was a wonderfully evocative sound, all the more so because it was for nobody’s benefit beyond their own.
We followed our noses through Tbilisi, which is definitely quite rough around the edges but appeared to be full of character, although completely lacking in signposts.  We came out close enough to the right road on the other side to continue, and then were rather hamstrung by our attempts to take a short-cut back to the main road.  The Buzzwagon was slightly behind us at this stage, and we both managed to take completely different roads too the one we thought we were on, and to each other.  This short cut turned into 25 miles of the worst sort of farm track, and a variety of bemused expressions as people wondered what on earth we could be doing there.  Anyway it got us back to the main road eventually, even if it was not quite the short cut we had initially imagined.  A special mention too for the Georgian drivers, who seem to consider overtaking around blind corners in the middle of the road as a lorry comes in the other direction as a deep rooted matter of male pride (female drivers in this part of the world are a very rare sight).  This is fine as long as somebody does not decide to do the same thing coming in the other direction.  We all found ourselves occasionally possessed by the spirit of the local drivers, it is not something you have a choice about.
After the hills of Georgia we descended to the flat, featureless plains of Azerbaijan.  Before this we had a great standoff, at the border, between the lawyers (Dave, Chris and Harry) and the officials (the border guards) over an unofficial tax that Dave was determined not to pay.  After what seemed like about 3 hours we won!  Long may it last.  Then the first properly Mongol Rally incident occurred.  I was driving along at about 11pm, at about 40. You cannot see more than about 5 yards in front of you, partly due to our useless lights, partly to the lack of any indication where the side of the road was, and partly because the many lorries coming in the other direction refuse to dip their lights.  It was while doing this that a cow ran out into the middle of the road, about 3 yards in front of us.  There was a lorry coming the other way, so I couldn’t swerve.  The brakes went on hard, but a side on cow is a difficult object to miss, and we caught it a heavy glancing blow. The cow got up and ran off, we had a look at the car and it seemed ok.  A broken indicator and some slightly bent bull bars were the only damage.  Then the people appeared, including the man who appeared to be the owner of the cow.  He appeared to be asking for money.  As far as we were concerned it was his fault.  We drove off.
About an hour and a half later we were pulled over at a police checkpoint, where they appeared to be personally acquainted with the cow, and a great game of charades as to what had happened began.  Dave does a mean cow impression.  We had swapped over by this stage, Harry was driving and I had gone to sleep.  Thus he was the one who was interviewed. After about 2 hours of wrangling, friendliness and confusion a man from the cow's local police station appeared and Harry was put in our car with the policeman and told to drive back to the scene of the crime.  He did so, with no phone and $3 in his pocket.  Meanwhile the cow impressions, from both us and the policemen, and cups of tea continued at our checkpoint, before we eventually went to sleep on the tarmac beside the car, much to the policemen's bemusement.
Harry still hadn't reappeared by the next morning, and we began to get concerned, but had no way of contacting him. We began trying to think of the many different eventualities that could have befallen him, for they had initially claimed he would be back in 4 hours.  Eventually Chris and I left Dave manning the checkpoint and set off towards the crime scene.  After crashing over a few bumps a nasty squeak appeared. The left front suspension was about to snap.  We crawled to a mechanic, who managed to put a temporary patch on it, and then crawled back to Dave.  He then told us he had a spare, and drove off to another mechanic, with another policeman, to get it properly fixed.  Meanwhile Chris and I got to man the checkpoint.  We still had no idea what had happened to Harry. Eventually he rolled in at about 2 o'clock, his first words being "I've been in the clink!"  I'm not the one to tell the full story, but apparently he had been held overnight, subjected to various interviews, made to sit in a corner facing the wall, threatened by a midget policeman, asked for a lot of bribes, beginning at $2000, pleaded a lot of ignorance and then let go without having to pay a thing.  He then joined the same policeman in watching soft porn later in the evening, and by the time he left the poor little man was apparently devastated that Harry could not come to a party at his house the next night.  There was also a lot of boasting about how many Armenians they had killed (they really are mortal enemies it seems). Harry claims to have had a fantastic time...
We are now in Baku, which is an oil boomtown and a very strange place in contrast with the rest of the country.  There are a huge number of foreigners of all sorts of nationalities here, and obviously a huge amount of money floating around, lots of designer shops etc.  Coupled to this there are all the signs of a dictatorship, pictures of the president, and his father (the former president) on just about every corner, police everywhere and lots of grand municipal buildings.  It has been very nice to sleep in a bed, and have the first shower since somewhere in Europe.
Hopefully we should be able to get on a ferry to Turkmenistan tonight, and that may prove to be the weirdest place of the lot.
The 2005 Mongol Rally - The Escapades