This is the sixth in a series of dispatches from the Mongol Rally.
As one could probably predict, the drive from London to the Russia-Georgia border was the easiest part of this trip. When we were turned away by Russian border guards for arriving 10 days before our visas took effect, it was only the start of our bureaucratic and logistical troubles.
We reversed course and headed back to Tbilisi. Russia blocked us to the north, Iran to the south, leaving Azerbaijan and a ferry ride to Kazakhstan as our only option for continuing our eastward journey. But Tyler still didn't have a visa for Azerbaijan, so we decided to split up. Matt and I would stay with the car and catch a ferry to Aktau, Kazakhstan, and Tyler could meet us after catching a flight from Tbilisi.
This was not a great plan. We had heard horror stories of the border crossing and police presence while in Azerbaijan. Previous teams had paid large fines for absurd traffic violations. Aside from a minor fender bender, we so far had had great luck avoiding interactions with police. We made it through the border by paying a $50 "road tax" and handing off a pair of absurd Mad Max-style chrome goggles, but then at our first checkpoint we get nabbed. It appeared as if the officer was waving us through, but apparently waving a wand back and forth in the direction of the road does not mean drive.
The cop blasted his whistle and shouted, indicating that we needed to pull over. Matt was charged over $200 in fines for speeding and running a stop sign, but instead of paying, we stalled. We laid a tarp onto the ground and began to place every item in the car onto the tarp, one item at a time. Eventually the cops got bored, and took a bag of our military rations instead of cash. We had only been in the country three hours and had already been hustled twice.
We were just three dirty strangers.
The rest of our time in Azerbaijan proved to be as corrupt and unorganized as the first few hours. We spent nearly a week tracking down information for an elusive ferry, waiting all day at the port in case the ticket seller came by. "Maybe today, maybe tomorrow" was the recurring answer. After five days, we finally met a man who seemed to have all the answers. We showed him our car, told him our story, and within 30 minutes were set. We took him and two of his staff out to dinner as a gesture of our appreciation. We would never have found the restaurant without them, and feasted on grilled meats, fresh vegetable salads, and bread.
After a miserable 24-hour ferry ride, the three of us rendezvoused in Aktau. We were eager to hit the road, cross Kazakhstan, and get across the Russian border. Just outside of town we passed a sign that said we were entering a dangerous section of the road. In reality, it should have said: "No roads ahead, choose your own path." Dirt paths crisscrossed the landscape, running parallel to what they must have referred to as the road.
It would have been bone-jarringly painful if we were in a four-wheel drive truck with marshmallows for wheels. We got nowhere in our Saxo built for London streets. On the first day, it took us over ten hours to make it 100 miles. Even if our car and backs survived, at that pace it would take us weeks to cross Kazakhstan. After three days of misery and two stops and a mechanic, we changed plans, and drove north to Russia.
When you have the proper visa, entering Russia is surprisingly easy. But our jalopy's suspension was shot, and was bottoming out crossing even the smallest of bumps. At the nearest service station, we used Google Translate and Word Lens to explain the issue to a mechanic. He found that a rear shocks-bolt had vibrated loose, and the wheel wells had begun to collapse under the weight of our gear. The mechanic worked for over three hours, drove to three stores in search of a part and fabricated another. When he returned the car, he refused to charge us for his services. We paid him anyway, in cash and lunch.
As we traveled, we were always in search of WiFi, our primary way of communicating with our families and our support network of donors and fans. Now that we were in the Russian boonies it was getting hard to find a signal. In one small town, I spotted a group of four younger people, probably in their twenties. Surely they would know where Wi-Fi was. A young woman in the group, dressed overly fancy in a red dress, asked if I was hungry. I said yes, believing that we could have access to a Wi-Fi connection if we purchased a meal in a restaurant. She ran off, returned shortly and beckoned the three of us to follow.
She led us to a decorated room filled with music and people who had clearly been celebrating with some libations, mainly of the vodka type. Dressed like travelers who had been on the road for days, we looked at each other and wondered where the mix up was. But for the host it was no mix up at all. It was a wedding, and the woman in the red dress was the bride.
We were invited in, warmly welcomed by her family and offered more food than you can imagine. Plates upon plates of chicken, stuffed peppers, salads, fruit, and desserts. We were just three dirty strangers, but each member of the family came up to introduce themselves. They even invited us to the after party. Leaving town, I wondered if such a thing would ever happen in the States. Doubtful.
We never did find WiFi.
Brian Castner contributed to this dispatch.
Read more about why we're sponsoring a rally car in this year's Mongol Rally.