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Author Archives: Lisa Anne

From The U.K. to Mongolia: Puppy Love in Russia

After a paranoid night of intermittent naps, I woke up with relief at not having been emotionally or physically scarred by a disturbance in the night.  Knowing full well we’d have another challenging day of border crossings and grappling with insurance agents, we got an early start to our 10th day of driving across Europe.

Not much changed in terms of scenery or logistics for us as we continued through the last bit of Ukraine.  More sunflower fields stretched across the landscapes and more potholes threatened to toss our car off into one of those fields if we got too ambitious with our driving speed.  Our last city stop was Mariupol, an identical twin of Melitopol, with an equally unwelcoming feel to it and probably more so to unassuming Dillion who didn’t understand traffic protocol in this city, which was to blatantly disregard the meanings of stoplight colors.  Up until this point, I don’t think we haven’t driven through many cities of significant size and we haven’t been in any city traffic jams.  We still weren’t technically in a jam when Dillion offended a random driver’s sense by not going through a red light.  Lots of car horn honking ensued and Dillion even spat out a little bit of Russian at the impatient driver.  I looked over shocked but impressed because I was certain he had yelled a complicated epithet in Russian.  Turns out though he was just trying to harshly state the obvious to this man by saying, “red”, multiple times.  Oh.  When I tell the story to my friends though, I’ll just say it was the former.

With Dillion properly angered at Ukraine for lack of excitement, unreasonable drivers and some other mysterious transgression for which I’m still trying uncover, it was a good thing that the Russian border was now within our sights.  Though I wasn’t as angered at Ukraine as Dillion was, I was still excited about entering Russia because it seems that in the midst of this journey, I’ve prioritized smooth roads in the list of things I need in my life.

Once again, we had anticipated a dramatic exchange of bribery and unnecessary paperwork to get through to Russian territory and once again, we were wrong.  As it turns out, the only things you really need to cross these borders aside from visas, are a lot of patience and a strong bladder.  Our only hiccup was the customs declaration in Russia.  Being the paranoid accidental saints that we are, we were overly truthful in our declaration forms, noting every bottle of wine and every currency we were carrying.  After a couple of tries, the customs agent tells us not to fill in any of that inconsequential stuff and just note details about the car.  Excellent.  We both did that and stepped up to another man with a big hat and a Busta Rhymes ringtone on his smartphone.  Someone’s a gangsta it seems!  That was a cute moment as he nonchalantly ignored the call, no doubt his girlfriend asking him what had he done for her lately.  Getting back to business, he asked us who the driver was and I pointed to Dillion.  He then proceeds to dramatically rip up my form like a school teacher trying to emotionally torture me into submitting better essays in the future.  I quietly sobbed but then he moved on to Dillion’s form and explained that that was the only one needed.  Dillion’s was reviewed and was sent to redo it just once more which I think is the equivalent of getting a B in Russian Customs Control 101.

With all of the formalities take care of, we set off once again into a new country, but this time with greater expectations than before.  Here in Russia we were promised smooth roads and a really huge memorial statue in Volgograd to remember the Great Patriotic War or WW2 as Americans know it.  Our first stop in Russia was Taganrog and as was becoming daily practice, this city stop would be to sort out all of the logistics of entering a new country – exchange money, withdraw money, and find a place to sleep in the next town.  For the first time on this trip, all three of these transactions happened with lightning speed and incredible speed.  We were so shocked with all of this that we also did another first and actually sat down at a restaurant to eat lunch.

WW2 Statue outside Taganrog

WW2 Statue outside Taganrog

Feeling refreshed and motivated due to our small victories in Taganrog, we headed off to Rostov-on-Don where we’d attempt to find another crude campsite.  A trend was starting to develop here in Russia and that was: everything coming easily to us.  After searching for maybe 20 minutes, we spotted a couple of tents on the outskirts of town and along the river.  It seems that wild camping is quite popular in Russia and seeing all of the locals engaged in this activity made me feel more comfortable about setting up shop myself.  We found our own little section of nature not too far from the others and could clearly see where a fire pit had been started.  Now we were living in the lap of luxury.  Not only would we eat shrimp pesto again for dinner tonight, but we’d have a romantic fire going as well.

As if that weren’t enough, next came what for me, was the highlight of this trip.  A small stray dog came wandering over to investigate our little operation.  At first I was standoffish because I knew for certain this dog was going to bite me and give me rabies.  Dillion, being a little less cynical and more informed about dogs, went right up to the little puppy and started petting it.  He assured me that it wasn’t an aggressive dog and wouldn’t be a problem so my heart melted and I joined in.  Dillion took his disarmingly gentle manner towards dogs to the next level and even shared our dinner with the puppy.  At this point, the puppy, who I’ve named, Puppy, was hooked on us.  He loved us unconditionally and I had to admit, now I did too.  He was a sweet little creature who just desperately needed love and affection from humans, and in the most disarming of all gestures, he even took up post at the front our campsite to guard us.  Sleep would come easily to me now knowing we had a guard dog.

Puppy was one of the nicest surprises in this whole trip and having him around was a nice reminder of what life would be like back home.  That’s why it came as a great disappointment in the morning when we had to leave him in Rostov.  I especially felt guilty about leaving him because I felt like I didn’t treat him as well as I could have.  Why did I feel this way you might ask?  Well, I peed on him in the middle of night.  Yup.  Puppy apparently does not sleep much as soon as I stepped out of the tent to pee in the middle of the night, he was excited and started jumping all over me.  Frustrated and feeling full, I yelled at him to stop and held him against a tree while I tried to do my business.  Not wanting to hurt him, I didn’t have much of a grip and lo and behold, he did break away.  Normally, you’d think that a creature would shy away from another creature expelling liquid but no.  Puppy ran directly into my line of fire and worse yet, then jumped all over me again.  It was a disaster and I yelled some more at Puppy for turning me into Michael Vick and R. Kelly’s twisted love child.  I went to bed in protest and then complained some more because Puppy still proceeded to rub up against me from outside the tent.  In the morning when I was somewhat clean, I felt awful for yelling at and peeing on Puppy.  Tears actually started to form when Dillion bid Puppy one last goodbye and he hugged him.  I also cringed though because I didn’t think Dillion should be petting him after what happened, but emotions were ruling our judgment at the time.  We sadly drove off in the rain and I daresay both of us were sobbing about our little friend and worry was being passed back and forth about whether he’ll be okay and if there will be somebody else who will treat him well.  Still even today, 2 months after the fact, Dillion and I semi-seriously discuss going back to Rostov and bringing Puppy back home with us.  Yes, it was a sad emotional drive to Volgograd that day.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Travel

 

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From The U.K. to Mongolia: The Armpit of Ukraine

After the wallet drain that was our one night in Odessa, Dillion and I were keen to continue driving through Ukraine with as few setbacks as possible and planned the most direct route to Russia possible.  This entailed driving through agricultural and industrial southern Ukraine while skipping over the peninsula, Crimea.  Little did we know at the time though, we had passed up a wonderful opportunity to see one of the more visually pleasant sides of Ukraine in favor of a faster journey.

The road quality presented to us for the drive from Odessa onwards was much higher than the previous day’s introduction to the country and for that, I’m sure I heard both Dillion’s shoulder joints and Money Pit breathing huge sighs of relief.  The roads still could use some touch-ups here and there, but the need for swerving was dramatically decreased.  This meant more time for enjoying the scenery, which was nothing but endless fields of sunflowers, and reflection on the journey.

Up until this point, there had been no time for writing blog posts or even enjoying the sights in the places we’ve passed.  As envious as some people were of our adventure, I’m hesitant to lodge any complaints or hint at any notion that this road trip might not be the greatest adventure ever.  Truthfully though, the Mongol Rally does leave much to be desired in terms of travel experiences and actually felt like a job itself.  Mine and Dillion’s frustrations understandably grew as the days bore on because of our monotonous daily routine.  Each day up to this point more or less followed a schedule: wake up, cook breakfast, pack up the tent, record starting mileage, plot our route, get gas, drive, find food, find the next night’s lodging, set up tent, cook dinner, sleep.  We lamented that it was the world’s least fun scavenger hunt as each day, we had to find the basic necessities for the day’s survival.

We’d normally cut ourselves off before indulging in too much self-pity as we did realize there were worse situations we could be in.  It helped too to remind myself of my guiding travel mantra: it’s all about the journey.   For this particular adventure however, it would have to be about the destination more so than the journey due to the financial responsibility of transporting a car to Mongolia intact, but I still had the hope that each new day of this trek would bring some pleasant surprises.

Before I could get too lost in romantic thoughts about journeying on the open road, we had already started our approach into the first city I had marked on this day’s route, Melitopol.  While still having access to the luxury of wifi at the hotel in Odessa, I tried to look up Melitopol on Wikitravel in hopes that the website would reveal some hidden sightseeing treasure but had no luck.  In fact, I don’t think there even was a wikitravel page.  I quickly discovered why.  Melitopol was a city of the bare necessities.  We found the one major supermarket and that was about all the fun we’d be having at this lunchtime stop.  The one highlight here was Dillion’s brilliant new dinner idea.  Normally, we had been purchasing chicken or beef to sauté in one of our many Indian sauces, but today, Dillion spotted frozen shrimp and we both said, “Why not?”  Our thinking was that the shrimp would thaw by the time we were ready to stop for dinner and then we could cook ourselves one posh camping dinner.

Now we were excited to get to our final destination for the day, Prymorsk, a small city on the Sea of Azov, and set up camp for the evening.  We had grand visions of eating our posh dinner on the beach and falling asleep to the sounds of an aquatic environment.  We arrived in Prymorsk around what was becoming our no fail stopping time, 7:30pm and began doing reconnaissance on the beach.  The sea itself was a lovely blue color matching Dillion’s shirt that day, but was a bit too chilly for us to jump in at the time.  Nothing of note seemed to be going on at this beach; it was fairly deserted.  Along with people though, the location was also devoid of any advantageous spots to set up camp.

Sunset in Prymorsk

Sunset in Prymorsk

Slightly disappointed, we got back in the car and decided to drive around town looking for our first wild camping adventure.  We had read from other blogs about the rally that finding camping spots on off-shoots on the sides of roads was standard operating procedure.  At the beginning of the rally, I was excited about this prospect, but that was at a time when I took for granted that we’d be traveling in convoy with other cars the entire time.  The reality of that idea is, it’s actually quite hard to form a convoy at this point in the trip because there are many different routes that teams can take and every team ultimately has different places they want to visit.  So at this point, we were still by ourselves and sleeping on our own in the wild didn’t feel so comfortable of an idea.  Even though I was with Dillion, I still felt extremely vulnerable and had fears of being attacked by a group of bored townsmen.  Was this a rational fear?  Maybe, maybe not, but given that I had already been mugged by a group of men once in my life, I wasn’t about to apologize to anyone for having this fear or try overly hard to suppress it.  It was what it was, and for that, I stand by my recommendation to women to not do this rally alone in spite of some negative backlash I received over that advice.  Even though, nothing did happen to us while camping, the fear I felt, which wasn’t even assuaged by sleeping with a mallet next to me, made it unpleasant enough and I don’t think I really gained any “character” or street cred as a backpacker by doing this.  That said, it wasn’t the most horrible experience of the entire trip and we did enjoy a colorful sunset and delicious dinner of pesto shrimp with rice.

Church in Prymorsk

Church in Prymorsk

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in Travel

 

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From The U.K. to Mongolia: The Tip of Moldova, Lada Envy and 4 Star Hotels

After a much needed day of rest on the beach, we packed up the campsite, an exercise that was becoming skillfully routine but not quite monotonous yet, and focused on having a productive day of driving towards Ukraine.

Unfortunately, there didn’t appear to be a main road directly to Ukraine from Constanta, at least not one that we trusted was in existence, so we had to backtrack a little bit.  We revisited the town of roadside fish salesmen as well as the town of hugging men before heading north.  Thus far in the journey, we’d been blessed with properly maintained roads that were smooth to drive upon.  We knew that upon entering Ukraine, this would all change as roads were rumored to be “rough”, whatever that meant in terms of specific road conditions.  Thinking that we still had several hours left before, we attempted to enjoy the drive when no sooner than making the turn north did the road conditions in Romania quickly degrade.  At the time, we were amazed at the abundance and random placements of all of the seemingly shallow potholes.  It was almost a novelty and we were slightly excited to start shooting video of our first road obstacle course.

In spite of the slightly weathered roads in Romania, we still made it to the border of Moldova at a reasonable hour in the morning.  We actually had been hoping to avoid this extra border crossing and drive straight through to Ukraine but apparently, the only place these Romania and Ukraine could possibly place a main road was through the 3 kilometers of Moldova that separated them.  As Moldova was our first border crossing with cause for concern as we learned from lessons of other teams that the farther east you go, the bigger the hats are for government officials, and the bigger the hats are, the more likely it is that you will find yourself trying to talk your way out of a bribe.  Our mutually agreed upon strategy was the smile and feign ignorance of the situation for as long as possible.   For the Moldova border crossing, this was a strategy we didn’t have to utilize just yet.  The border crossing was smooth as could be, though it did require a certain level of patience for sitting around in your car.

After entry and being the ever conscientious visitors that we are, our first task of importance was finding the elusive insurance agents.  We spotted one lone building through a gap of freight trucks in waiting and marched over with all of our paperwork.  We politely lulled the bored agent from her afternoon nap and easily walked through the process even though it seemed she was genuinely shocked that anyone coming through this border actually needed third party motor insurance.  After a few signed documents and the bargain price of $15, we were well on our way through the remaining 2 kiliometers of Moldova until hitting the Ukrainian border.  We had actually debated whether or not to even bother getting insurance, but erred on the side of caution.  When we came up to the exit border for Moldova, we soon found out that this was one of those few times where an investment in insurance was actually worth the cost.  Our insurance was the first document he checked and after meeting up with another team in Ukraine who didn’t purchase the insurance, we learned that we saved ourselves from a $60 fine by doing so.  It was a small victory for us, but a victory nonetheless and I did do my best to not gloat too much about it in front of the young trio of dudebros who informed us of such victory.

The border to enter Ukrainian was by far the longest and most convoluted in terms of processing.  We had to wait in no less than 4 queues to progress through various checkpoints, none of which were clearly marked.  This was one of those instances where it helped to observe everyone else to see how the flow of transactions worked and then proceed.  After a little over 2 hours, Money Pit and ourselves were granted entry to Ukraine and we set about finding our next campsite for the evening.

Road signs in Ukraine and Dashboard Jesus

Road signs in Ukraine and Dashboard Jesus

Before we started the rally, Dillion and I had read that Ukraine was meant to be the worst country to drive through in terms of being shaken down for bribes by crooked cops and road conditions.  I kind of dismissed the cautions about the roads, thinking that surely the roads would have been vastly improved since the last reports I read, and instead focused on crooked cops.  I’m still quite sensitive when it comes to any transaction involving the criminal element, so for me, getting through Ukraine as quickly as possible without drawing attention to ourselves was a priority.  Throughout our introduction to Ukraine, we were met with desolate villages, beat up Ladas and almost no presence of law enforcement officials.  My former concern was proving to be energy wasted, but the fumbling road conditions made sure neither myself nor Dillion got too comfortable in Ukraine.  For the 4 hour drive from Reni to Odessa, it was a very slow driving obstacle course of mid-sized potholes that threatened the integrity of our undercarriage.  We often looked on in envy at the seemingly disheveled Ladas passing us whose one advantage over our Suzuki Alto was the raised suspension.    Our longing looks didn’t last too long though, as the roads did punish your car if your eyes weren’t focused on the next pothole.

We pulled into Odessa with another rally vehicle just after nightfall and ready to give the car a break for the day.  Finding accommodations was a less than organized operation this time around as we were desperate to stop driving and ventured towards the first hotel that came up in our GPS search.  Taking a wild shot in the dark, I chose the Hotel London, completely unaware of its status as a 4 Star hotel.  Seeing this designation on the entrance, I laughed at my skill for making decisions that end up emptying our pockets, but reasoned that because we’re in Ukraine, these hotels are still cheap compared to European standards.  Wrong I was and unaware was Dillion.  I asked him to wheel and deal with the front desk clerk as his basic Russian was still better than my non-existent Ukrainian.  Before we actually knew what the nightly rate was, Dillion had a key in hand and I knew then that this would be a heartbreaker.  Dillion, still unaware, I quickly looked up some exchange rates and did a calculation and determined that we just paid $170 for tonight’s stay in Odessa.  I laughed again like I did when Money Pit died on the M4 and broke the news to Dillion who was shattered.  I was still laughing all the way up to the well-appointed room and fully stocked bathroom until I realized Dillion was genuinely upset at this financial setback.  I tried rationalizing this by playing up the two free drinks that were included and pushing the complimentary pillow chocolates in front of him, which only succeeded in getting him out of the room and into the Glasgow bar downstairs where we shamelessly ordered the most expensive drinks we could stomach.

We did have our final redemption in the morning though as we feasted upon the included breakfast and eavesdropped on a conversation between an American or Canadian man and his Ukrainian escort.  Unlike most hotel breakfasts, this one probably did warrant the $170 rate.  Every food item, breakfast related or not was on offer and again we shamelessly made it our mission to eat as much as possible and stuff my bag with as much as possible.  Divided though we were on the hilarity of this particular situation, uniting together over our cheapness was one of those special moments when I realized Dillion is the man of my budget savvy dreams.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2013 in Travel

 

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From The U.K. to Mongolia: A Tribute to Money Pit

A quick photo collage to commemorate the workhorse that drove us almost 9,000 miles from the Thames Ditton, England to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia….

1 - Money Pit in EnglandMoney Pit’s first night out at a campsite in Southern England.  She was cleaned up, was wearing all of her hubcaps and was ready to take on the open road…2 - MP - Breakdown…Well not quite ready.  The day after we picked her up and one week before the start of the Mongol Rally, Money Pit overheated and blew a gasket on the M4…3 - Money Pit in France…Thanks to a handy mechanic, Money Pit was repaired in about 5 days time and she was well on our way to Mongolia.  Here she takes a break in Northern France on Day 1 of the journey…4 - MP - off road Germany…Just on the border of Germany and Czech Republic, Money Pit gets her first taste of dirt roads and manages just fine…5 - Money Pit in Prymorsk…Several days later and after another major breakdown scare, Money Pit takes in a beautiful sunset on the Sea of Azoz in Prymorsk, Ukraine…7 - MP with Ramblin Men - Kazakhstan…Now in Kazakhstan, Money Pit has found a friend in Team Ramblin Men’s Renault Kangoo…8 - MP - campsite in Kazakhstan…After a long and tough day on Western Kazakh roads, Money Pit takes a break at a campsite south of Aral…9 - Money Pit - New Fan Switch…In the capital city of Astana, Dillion, using his clever mechanical skills, sets up a manual switch for the fan to keep Money Pit from overheating…11 - MP - Russia breakdown 810…Still overheating did happen and this is one of many times, we had to refill the radiator fluids for poor old Money Pit…10 - MP - Biysk Campsite 809…One last stop in Russia, Money Pit enjoys her favorite campsite next to a scenic and extremely cold river outside of Biysk while her owners relaxed and drank vodka cocktails…12 - MP - Dillion not Driving…Still, Money Pit lives on and made it across the border of Mongolia.  As you can see, the roads were so smooth at one point, Dillion didn’t need to look nor steer to drive the car…13 - MP - Mongolia Hill 813…and Money Pit continued on being rattled and shaken all throughout the rough roads of Mongolia…14 - MP - Mongolia Hill 813a….and up the hill she goes, making her way to her first river crossing…15 - MP - Mongolia River crossing 1…Here she waits ready to forge her first river…16 - MP - Mongolia River Crossing 2…So far it’s looking good…17 - MP - Mongolia River Crossing 3…and with a little help from our MF convoy teams, Money Pit makes it up to dry land…18 - MP - Mongolia last day….Not too much further now.  Money Pit is good and dirty and ready to drive her last day all the way to the finish line in Ulaanbaatar…19 - MP at the Finish Line…and around 8:00pm on August 21st, she makes it to the finish line with her proud and very relieved owners…20 - Money Pit at the Finish Line…The last goodbye to Money Pit!  Thanks for the memories and we hope your future owner treats you well…though after seeing Mongolian drivers in action, we seriously doubt it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2013 in Travel

 

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From The U.K. to Mongolia: Turning 30 On The Road

For the first time since we started this road trip, we stayed in one place for more than one night, a very pleasant change of pace.  When we awoke on our 7th day of travel, there was no immediate rush to take down the tent and camping equipment, no fussing with the fluid levels or tire pressure and no early morning navigational challenges trying to find the best route out of town.  Instead, we took our time making breakfast in the morning and left our tent staked in the ground while enjoying a day on the beach of the Black Sea.  Not having any responsibilities other than feeding myself and applying sunblock left me with time to reflect on the big 3-0.

The first question anyone should ask themselves when contemplating this life milestone is: Why is turning 30 such a big deal to begin with?  I feel as though if left in a vacuum, myself and any other person wouldn’t give this a second thought.  I like to think I wouldn’t care, but I am sitting here thinking about it now because people have told me such things like, “your eggs are getting old”, “you should have a wedding soon”, etc., and I’ve witnessed friends sink into depressive and/or dramatic episodes over turning 30.  So naturally I have to think about what I’ve done with my life up to this point and where it’s heading and how I stack up to that “What Women Should Have by 30” list, which I’ve now decided is bullshit.  Sure it contains some good advice, but what woman needs a nice piece of jewelry to validate herself as a confident thirty-something?  I mean, I do have every season of The X-Files on DVD, which is basically the same thing because they contain shiny floating objects and keep me entertained for hours, so I guess I might possibly qualify as a real 30 year old woman.

Getting back to point, after all of that reflection and measurement of my life’s accomplishments, I didn’t really come up with any great plan of action for my life or any inspiring conclusion other than that people waste too much energy and thought contemplating and validating their lives.  Sitting here now, I’m aware of the irony in me even sitting here and writing this article, but I do have a point, I think.  I’m glad I turned 30 because the only alternative would be death and in spite of the philosophy class I took in college, I’m not at a mature metaphysical state of mind where I can be comfortable knowing I’m dead.  That really should be the end of anybody’s internal discussion.  My hope for the future is that there’s less of a demand for these self-help articles about aging and when my nieces enter this stage of life they respond to it with the same answer they give me when I tell them to be nice to one another: “Whatever”.

Though if I did have to share one piece of advice for newly minted 30 year old women, and I think this actually should go for anyone at any age, it’s that the only “thing” you should have, know or do is understand one simple rule: this is the age when you stop comparing yourself to others or to anyone else’s standards.  One of the biggest killers of self-confidence is when you start comparing yourself to other women and focus on what they have versus what you have.  This is also likely to be the root cause of cattiness and jealousy amongst women, which also doesn’t bode well for emotional health.  I know it’s corny and annoying to hear but assuming you haven’t murdered anybody yet, you should always because your life is fulfilling to you or you’re still working on it.  Take me for instance.  I’m single in the eyes of God and the government.  I’m unemployed and after perusing the job market, appear to be unemployable.  I have no kids.  I’m still up to my eyeballs in student loan debt.  I don’t own a house or anything else of significant value.  Taking all of this into account and stacking it up against where my peers are and what society norms are, I should be downright ashamed of myself.  I do get a little depressed at times when I sit and stew about it, and I also thought by now I would have given up on my blog, but I’m still here working away at the dream and that’s enough to keep me motivated for the time being.

Also, learning how to roll your eyes at anything that doesn’t please you, is a great tool to have as well.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2013 in Travel

 

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From The U.K. to Mongolia: More Mechanics and The Carpathians

Today, July 18th, was my last day as a twenty-something and what better way to have spent it than journeying towards Sibiu, Romania, a town I remembered from my days as an analyst and a town that now promised us free beer for the whole evening.  Another informal checkpoint, a small pub in Sibiu which was owned by presumably a friend of the Mongol Rally, boasted to provide free beer to ralliers all night long making this a stop we desperately wanted to make.

Having crossed the border into Romania and paying for the necessary insurances and road taxes, we were well on our way to making it to the free beer haven for the day.  Romania was particularly a welcome sight for me because I realized that this is the one country on our journey where Spanish and Italian mildly translate here.  I was better able to make myself understood than in any other country so far, save for France due to elementary French skills.

The first town we encountered in Romania was a basic one with modest services and the occasional horse-drawn buggy.  The one oddity about it was the vast number of elaborately designed and mansion sized homes that appeared to be vacant.  No one ever gave us a clear explanation for why these were built, but if you happen to be in the market for a bargain priced mansion in the middle of nowhere, Ciorani is the place to be.  Further on the outskirts of town we were so excited to have spotted our first road side prostitutes.  I wanted to scream out the window and let them know that Liam Neeson was on his way from Albania to come save them but my jokes are always lost on both the locals and pretty much everyone else who doesn’t have the same taste in cinematic art.

It wouldn’t be a regular day on the rally for us if we didn’t hit our daily obstacle at a crucial point in the day and so we did just a few hours outside of Sibiu.  After an hour long traffic hold up we began driving steadily and heard that terrifying rattling noise that put Money Pit out of commission in the first place.  Eyes bugging out, Dillion didn’t waste any time pulling off into the conveniently placed gas station only 100 meters away.  We lifted the hood and out came a bunch of steam from the bubbling water reservoir.  It appeared that we stopped the car just in time and now had to wait a half hour for the car to cool down.  Dillion also took the time to fill up the radiator with water in what was to be the 2nd round of several hundred of filling up this radiator.

In the time it took us to pull up and open the hood, we were already being approached by an opportunistic salesman (I use the term loosely) to get his cut out of our troubles.  He attempted to try and help us with the car by giving us the ever so helpful advice of waiting for the car to cool down.  I admittedly left Dillion to deal with him because I figured they could talk cars or something and I wouldn’t have to deal with him.  When I came back though he had already sucked Dillion into a conversation about how little money he makes per year and how it’s such a problem he has having 3 kids.  I really detest people who complain about having too many children.  Knowing we’d be here for a while listening to this crap though I went through my change purse and found the smallest bills in preparation for the “give me money” plea.  I did end up giving him a few bucks and oddly enough he tried to give me designer perfume that he was selling.  Then I realized, oh it’s stolen or it fell off a truck.  Somebody judged me later for saying it was stolen but logically speaking, no traveling salesman who’s aching for cash gives away perfume that retails for $70 for a few bucks.  This belief was further confirmed when he then tried to sell us a $500 smartphone that suspiciously came with apps already loaded and a carrying case.

Sketchy salesman behind us, the car had cooled down and we cautiously drove into Sibiu, making it in time for the free beer and festivities.  This was one promise that didn’t fall short.  When we entered the bar with our empty mugs, the lady hosting this event pointed us over to the group’s dedicated table with two beer taps.  Dillion and I looked at each and literally fought our way to the taps to see who could get there first.  I believe my left boob was even restrained at one point.  Again, I do admire Dillion’s steadfast focus on the mission sometimes.  We both got our beers in due time and set about doing the socializing thing.

Morning came and with it, my 30th birthday, something I guess I’m supposed to whine about but in reality, I could care less except for the fact that I did want a bit of a celebration.  Unfortunately for me, our afternoon was spent looking for a Suzuki mechanic to take a look at our car.  Dillion discovered that the car was overheating due to a faulty fan.  After an hour or two of wrong turns and false hopes in the city of Brasov, we arrived at the proper mechanic and settled down to play the wait and ‘guess how much this will set us back’ game.  As it turned out, this was much easier than expected.  The English speaking mechanic named Bobby, quickly set about diagnosing Money Pit, while I was allowed to sit at his computer in the garage and watch funny YouTube videos.  In no more than 15 minutes, he effortlessly discovered that two wires had been switched haphazardly thus causing the fan to not turn on.  He made the switch and sent us off on our way free of charge.  I was feeling a bit emotionally drained that morning due to the car frustrations and felt overwhelmed by his helpfulness and generosity.  Dillion shook his hand and I gave him a space invading bear hug.

Cruising through Romania

Cruising through Romania

The rest of the day was relatively smooth sailing for us.  We ventured on a scenic route through the Carpathians and I realized that being too nervous about the car overheating again led me to forget to pull the camera out for some pictures.  Money Pit managed the winding climb well enough though, topping out at 3,500 feet.  Continuing on to Constanta, a beach resort town on the Black Sea, we encountered more small towns with their individual quirks.  One town was populated with dozens of men who were selling large fish on the side of the road and another had the same dozen men but with no fish.  These men just held their arms out and we decided that they were selling hugs.  Once we arrived, Constanta, the scene was quite similar to Miami Beach, one long strip of beach with numerous clubs.  On Oha beach towards the northern end, we found numerous campsites, a sight not so familiar on American beaches.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2013 in Travel

 

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From The U.K. to Mongolia: Cops and A Failed Attempt to Enter Serbia

We decided to get a head start this morning by skipping the second parade and heading straight two-lane highways.  There was no need to get through all of the fanfare again when we had an ambitious day planned.  We intended to drive south through the Czech Republic into Austria and through Slovak Republic to end up in Hungary for the night.

No less than 2 hours into our morning drive was the planned route derailed.  Driving along at what seemed like a reasonable speed, at least it was the speed that everyone else was driving, we spotted a cop in the middle of the road waving his little baton at us.  Later in our journey we would soon come to loathe the ever present police baton.  We both expressed utter shock that we were being pulled over by police before we even left the EU.  I suppose we got too comfortable driving in Europe and didn’t realistically expect to have any conversations with police officers until Ukraine where supposedly the cops were very much focused on shaking down Mongol Rally cars for so called fines.

The gruff looking cop naturally came over to my side of the car to ask for documents.  I played dumb mostly because I was dumb in this instance not knowing German, but Dillion managed to carry a dialogue.  An interesting note about traffic stops in foreign countries is that they frequently ask you to step out of the car.  In the U.S. cops are overly protective of their authority and view any action to move out of the car as a direct violation of said precious authority.  As Dillion and the cop were outside trying to work out the details of Dillion’s driving violation and what it would cost us, I was in the car taking note of the cop’s badge number as I was convinced this was a bribe waiting to happen.  It technically wasn’t.  Dillion was driving 10 kph over the speed limit, which equates to about 3-4 mph.  U.S. cops wouldn’t take the time to chase a car down for this but when stopping someone is as easy as waving a baton, I guess that’s what you do.  The fine came to 500 koruna which was less than $25, but not having expected to spend much time in the Czech Republic, we had no cash and spent the greater part of an hour searching for an ATM in town.

Back on the road with our speeding award in hand, we were obviously driving exactly the speed limit from this point on, much to our chagrin as we were consistently passed by other vehicles.  We did pass another car that was flashing his headlights at us.  Dillion thought his headlights weren’t on and I thought there was a cop ahead.  Turns out I was correct.  We didn’t get pulled over this time, but it was a good lesson in things that transcend cultural divides – drivers warning each other about the police.

Pressed slightly for time we drove through Austria without too many stops.  As we were entering Austria, Dillion did break out his notable Arnold Schwarzenegger impression and we did an impromptu interview discussing topics such as how it felt to return to his native country, why he was in such a small car and why was driving to Mongolia.  It’s these moments of insanity that really keep you motivated on the rally.

My first time visiting the city of Vienna was a disappointing blur.  As a consequence of Money Pit’s previously blown head gasket and currently fragile nature in the overheating department, cities with heavy traffic were now mostly off limits to us and we tried to hurry through as quickly as possible.  I managed to snap a few nice pictures from our moving vehicle, but nothing that quite tells the story of this historic city.

My sad view of Vienna

My sad view of Vienna

Evening was settling in and we stopped at a roadside campsite just inside the Hungarian border near the city of Gyor.  This was technically our first success in finding a proper campsite while driving through Europe.  We set up shop and were soon enjoying one of her first cooked dinners on the Whisperlite campstove, a backpacker’s dream in the compact cooking equipment department.  We were later joined by team of Dutch videographers from the rally who showed us decent footage of the celebrations at Klenova this morning.  Regrettably, I wished we had stayed for this celebration as there were giant men pulling cars with their teeth, much more enjoyable than the fake jousting show at Bodiam.

The following day we headed out with our sights set on camping in Serbia.  Another day of good intentions and another day fallen short of expectations.  We drove through the many sunflower fields and plains of Hungary, nicknaming it the Nebraska of Europe, and easily made our way through our first official border crossing.  We sailed smoothly into Serbia, I changed our remaining Hungarian Forint into Serbian Dinar and our last stop was buying insurance for the car.  This proved to be quite confusing.  While we were certain that our current policy was not valid in Serbia and would thus have to buy insurance at the border, the agent standing behind the desk with boxes of hard core porn DVDs swore we didn’t need it.  We had a UK registration so it was no problem, she potentially said in Serbian.  We didn’t want to chance a second police stopping in one day and carried on to the next city where I ran around on foot looking for a tourist information booth to double check.

We had no luck finding information about insurance in the small town of Subotica and made the prudent decision to return to Hungary.  Of course this would be more difficult.  A process that took 15 minutes in the opposite direction now was taking up to an hour before we would see border crossing officials.  And here’s where the next problem was brewing.  Only a few days ago, Dillion and I made the amazing discovery of extremely economical bottles of wine while grocery shopping in France and Hungary.  At $2.50 per bottle, we discussed the adequate number of bottles of wine that would be sufficient to get us through the next few weeks journey.  12 wouldn’t quite get us there, but 18 would do the job.  Being short on space in the car we got inventive on how to store those 18 bottles.  At the time I thought it would be a great idea to tuck bottles within the inner tubes of our 2 spare tires in the back.  Fast forwarding to two days later when a customs official started pulling them out of the tires, the cringing look on my face decided it was probably not the greatest idea.  She pointed us over to the naughty corner and we waited for her to return to do a more thorough search of the car.  I realized at this point though that my obsessive nature in tracking purchases and holding on to receipts was going to save us from a hefty import duty.  After she lined up all of our bottles in what felt like an alcoholic’s shaming ceremony I shoved the receipts in her face like an annoying student.  “See, see, we purchased them in the EU, we paid all of our taxes!”  She checked the names on the bottles and did a count, noting the 4 bottles we had already consumed and waved us off, annoyed that we wasted her time.

Back in the EU again and no longer in need for any further excitement this side of the border we settled up for the night at a campsite just outside Mako, positioning ourselves for an early morning crossing into Romania.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2013 in Travel

 

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