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A Fender Bender Along the Russian Border

It was inevitable. A dispatch from the Mongol Rally.

by Justin Hamilton
Aug 25 2015, 1:00pm

Somewhere in Kazakhstan. Photo: Matt Cook

This is the fifth in a series of dispatches from the Mongol Rally.

Previously:

What Happens When Your Rally Car Breaks Down in Croatia

Essential Tech for Rally Car Racing 10,000 Miles Across Eurasia

A Rally Car Named Desire

We Are Three Former Bomb Techs Driving a Rally Car Across Europe and Asia

THE RUSSIAN BORDER—This trip would never be a walk in the park. As prepared as we could be something was bound to occur, throwing a wrench into our plans. Crashing—or at the least, a fender bender—would be inevitable. But more on that in a moment.

Over three quarters of the route remained by the time we hit Kosovo, where we had one last important stop planned with a US Army EOD. Kosovo was a country grander than I had envisioned. The scenery was beautiful, the food delicious, and the people warm and welcoming. We were invited for a day at the demolition range by the Kosovo Security Forces EOD unit, also attended by the 666th EOD Company out of Alabama and a Swiss EOD contingent. The three of us greatly appreciated the chance to work alongside EOD technicians from different countries, learning their techniques and sharing our experiences.

We left Kosovo energized for what lay ahead en route for Turkey. A brief stint in Macedonia and an easy day of driving through Greece led us to the Turkish border. Tensions between the two countries are still high, but passing through with all of our gear was painless.

Altar and temple remnants within the city of Troy. Photo: Mad Bombers

A main point of interest for us upon entering Turkey was visiting the ancient city of Troy. We caught a ferry from Ecabat to Cannakelle. It was remarkable walking along what used to be streets of the ancient city. Troy dates back to 3,000 BC, and there are still remnants of that original civilization at the site. The location was prime for defense and utilized over the centuries with each succeeding occupier building on top of the previous. Layers of history literally lay on top of each other.

We pressed on through Turkey in search of a ferry into Russia, we were in need of an alternate route in order to bypass Iran and the Caucus region of southern Russia. While searching for our hotel in the port city of Samsun, we were stopped by two men on the street. Tyler got out to speak to one and the other jumped in the passenger seat and told Matt to drive. A quick glance between Matt and I, we decided to let it play out.

The man quickly repeated the name of the hotel we were in search of and led us to a small alley parking spot. An odd way to great guests, but we welcomed the help. We had read about a ferry from Turkey to Sochi, Russia, and began asking around for how to locate it. Every person had a different answer so we went to the docks ourselves. To our dismay there was no longer a route serviced by that port. But we were told there may be one leaving from Trabson or Batumi, Georgia.

Georgia's Kazbegi National Park, just south of the Russian border. Photo: Matt Cook

Batumi is a seaside town along the Black Sea just across from the Turkish border. It was bustling even for the late hour we arrived. Settled into our hostel room, we spent some time visiting with other travelers and searching for this elusive ferry. A helpful hostel employee finally located some information; there was a ferry with room on board for our car and leaving for Sochi. The departure date was August 26, a day before we had planned on finishing. Clearly that option would not work. Back to the drawing board.

Tiblisi had embassies; maybe we could locate the necessary visas there. One of our teammates, the name of which neither Matt nor I will not mention, was unable to get his Azerbaijan visa in time for the trip and we were in need of an alternative route into Kazakhstan. Planning entry and exit dates and requesting visas was one of the more complicated aspects of the trip.

After much research and some debate, we had settled on an alternative route through northern Georgia around the northern Caspian Sea and into Kazakhstan. We set out for Kazbegi National Park just south of the Russian border. This park is home to some of the best rock climbing in the world and all three of us decided we were going to come back. Above the city sits a church, built in 1,300 AD, that still functions as an active place of worship.

The border crossing here is rumored to take hours so we left early, arriving at 8:00 AM. We faced traffic backed up for miles. The crossing sits at the base of a steep mountain road with entrance traffic winding its way downward. On the approach a large semi heading up the hill came within inches of smashing into our car. Matt, with his quick reflexes, threw the gearbox in reverse. A wave of relief passed over me followed by a strong jolt forward. The van behind us had approached quickly, meeting our bumper with a crash. What could have been an ugly situation proved to be beneficial. Once I repaired their license plate and we shared some stories with them.

Waiting in line. Photo: Mad Bombers

Traffic at the border crossing was chaotic. Cars would skip the line, only to squeeze in at the last minute, causing further delays. Our newfound friends from Azerbaijan and Ukraine (the car in front of us) began blocking traffic as we inched closer to the gate, preventing cars from passing. This worked well until I stopped a bus full of Georgian Police officers. The seemed to understand the issue and asked us to leave traffic control to them.

Five hours later, we arrived at the coveted Russian border. None of us have been here, and needless to say we'd been looking forward to it. The visa process was quite lengthy, and we only received ours a few days before leaving on this trip.

Entering customs at the border was no different than the traffic outside as people jockeyed for position. Finally, we made it to the customs window and our passports were reviewed. An additional agent was called over; that is never good. Tyler had driven the car through while Matt and I stood at the window, staring in disbelief as we were told that we were not going to be allowed into the country. Our military background? My foolish traffic control? Tyler doing donuts through customs?

None of the above. In our haste to get to the border and planning other details we all had neglected to verify our date of entry: August 15. We were 10 days early.

Read more about why we're sponsoring a rally car in this year's Mongol Rally.