Friday, 14 September 2007

Day 10 The worst country on the planet

As per usual it was an early start despite the hangovers of the previous night. We said our goodbyes to Louis and took note of his completely useless directions and left. As usual we were in a foreign city so we had to get completely and utterly lost but after a few stops for directions we were on the right road.

An Extremely unimpressed and un helpful Georgian women

We reached the Azerbaijan border at about 8.30, to find it wasn't open for another hour. While waiting, we witnessed an argument between two locals which resulted in one chasing the other round in circles with a knife. It was touch and go as to how it would end, fortunately no one got hurt. Also while we were waiting a British Mitsubishi Pagero rolled up with four guys who were travelling round the Caspian Sea. They had similar amazing tales to tell, they had spent the previous day at a race tracking with street racers from Tbilisi and one of them had crashed one of the local's cars.

The border soon opened and we left Georgia with not little trouble, it was the Azerbaijan border that caused us massive problems. They kept us waiting around for ages and then they took all 3 of the cars documents to process at once, of course it was immediately obvious that we were missing the correct V5 form. As I had been sitting in the small office there waiting for the offical to fill out the required forms, locals had been barging in to get themselves processed ahead of us. Some had the right documents, some didn't so they would bring cash or booze or both, so as soon as he refused us entry to the country I pulled out 20 dollars and slid it across the desk, he then wrote on his pad 40 and I had little choice put to agree. Several hours later and well into the sweltering mid afternoon we were through only to get a mile down the road and get stopped at a police check point. They took our documents up to their look out post, wrote our names in a book and then told us we had to pay road tax. We told them in no uncertain terms NO, took our documents and left.

There were police everywhere, they would hide in the shade of trees just before towns with speed guns, the limit changed as you entered the towns and you would no doubtedly be going too fast. Each of the 3 cars got pulled costing us a range between 5 and 20 dollars to escape without further trouble, sometimes you wouldn't

The roads were on the whole good, but we reached points where they were still under construction forcing us onto sandy tracks filled with large lorries, pot holes and ditches. The Pajero unfortunately hit a young calf which was attempting to cross the road, we didn't stop as we were in sight of a Police check point and there was no chance we were going get charged some trumped up charge.

We were out of money and had been borrowing off Go North, we had tried to pay with Dollars but no one excepted and we were running out of petrol fast. We reached a town with a bank and it had a cash machine outside. I went over and tried to use it, only to find that the keypad was electrified and everytime I press a button I would get shocked. My card was in so there was only one way to get it out and that was to keep pressing, the machine suddenly turned off and two security guards came out. They made it clear that we couldn't use the machine, I got my card back when it turned back on and we went inside to the counter. We tried to ask if they would take Mastercard or Maestro, they didn't and we were forced to borrow more money off Go North and exchange it which took a whole load of negotiating in itself.

Eventually we reached Baku around 10pm, the drive in again was terrible, completely lost and with bad roads and horrific drivers. We tried to stop at a 24 hour money exchange and again wouldn't take Mastercard despite having a sign for it.

We finally found the port after asking for directions with a picture of a boat with a car on drawn by Dan. We still managed to miss it several times, the only car and freight ferry in the major port of Baku has no signpostings and is down a dirty little side road.

There were guards there who found us a lovely bit of waste land on the waters edge where we could pitch our tents, how generous!!

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Day 9 Manic drivers, Millionnaires and More...

We woke at 7 to find the town up and about before us, we were certainly causing quite a stir. Everyone seemed to be staring at us as they walked or drove by. Some had taken to sitting on the benches and staring at us. I was like we were 3 headed aliens and we had landed our space craft in the centre of the town. I did occur to us that for many this would be the first evertime they had seen English people and English cars in their country. Blake was making a cup of tea while John was still fast alseep in his hammock strapped up between two trees, the Police stopped by to say hello or that's what we thought they were saying.

The mission now was to get to the port of Baku as soon as possible, Blake and Dan's Turkmenistan visas started the next day and with the limit of 5 days only in the country time was short so it wasn't a good start when we spent the morning getting lost in the middle of nowhere in villages with roads no more than dirt tracks. We rectified the situation and got back on the main road, again heading East.

Around mid afternoon we were nearing the Capital Tbilisi in the East of the country, when a black Jeep overtook us, swerved in and signalled for us to pull over. We had suffered being cut up and having to move from our own side the road for oncoming overtaking drivers all day so we were used to the bad driving but had no idea what this was about. We pulled over and two men jumped out the back of the Jeep. They came over and there was instant relief when we heard them speak in English.

Apparently one of them had seen the rally setting off in Hyde Park and had read something about it in a paper, they had seen the cars and had been amazed we had got so far. They had then taken it upon themselves to pull us over and invite us to lunch, and again for the 3rd day in a row of strange and weird situations we decided to go with it. We followed them to the outskirts of Tbilisi and down so more dodgy looking roads with even weirder surroundings. For those of you who have seen the the film Hostel, you will know exactly what we were thinking when they lead us in the general direction of this building.

Luckily they had no intentions on torturing to death and did simply want to take us for lunch. We went to what was said to be the best retaurant in Georgia, it was set on a river bank with tables littered down the hillside, pathways and steps connecting them all. The two guys, Daniel and David (accompanied by their driver/guide/body guard) ordered pretty much every dish on the menu and numerous jugs of wine despite our insistance that we wanted to reach the Azerbaijan border that evening. We got chatting and it turned out that Daniel and David were out here doing business, they were property developers and they had just secured a mulit-million pound contract to build flats and houses to sell to wealthy business men around the world. They were predicting Tbilisi to be the next Rome or Prague as the tourist hotspot, the place to go for weekends away etc. If they were right then they were set to be very rich men (not that they went already by the looks of it). One of their friends came to join us, Louis who turned out to be the son of the British Ambassador.

As the afternoon went on and the wine kept flowing they soon convinced us to stay the night, Louis would put us up in his house and they would take us out for the evening. The opportunity to have a shower was very inviting so didn't take long for us to accept. So David paid the bill (which was of a considerable amount) and we left.

Lunch in Georgia; (left to right) David, John, Dan, The bodyguard, Daniel, Blake, Chris and Louis

Louis' house was in the old town and very nice, on four floors with a spiral stair case leading up to a balcony looking out over the city. It didn't take long for the affects of the alcohol and afternoon heat to take affect John, Blake and Dan who were soon asleep on the balcony. Louis who had a bit much wine had gone off looking for McDonalds in a drunken stupor.

Daniel and David sooned turned up ready to take us out for the evening, I managed to raise Dan but it was like trying to raise the dead with Blake and John so we left them and headed out. We wandered down a series of old quaint alleyways past restaurants and bars until we found one that Daniel recommended, I passed a cash machine and said I needed to get some money, the reply I got back was "Oh, you won't be needing money tonight!" We found another group of English people who were on holiday and we spent the evening telling them of our adventures on the rally. Again there was more wine and amazing food which was paid for by David.

We left late and headed back to Louis', on the way past the car their was a man who apparently was the 'Parking attendant' and said we needed to pay for leaving our cars, David's reaction to this was simply hand him a wad of cash and send him on his way.

Day 8 - Turkey into Georgia

The soldiers came back about 8 the next morning, they didn't stay long, all they wanted was to make sure we had survived the night and a picture with us and the cars. We packed up and left soon after and followed the only direction we knew which was East. We spent the day driving along the coast of the Black sea, the road was a just one long duel carriage way with reasonably decent tarmac all the way. It was refreshing to see the sea again and we stopped off at lunch time in what was a shanty town in a crop of trees neighbouring the beach. It was the first time for any of us that we had gone into the sea carrying shower gel and shampoo for a wash.

It took us the entire day to reach the Georgian border arriving finally at 11pm. We had met up with two more teams, two irish guys in a gold and white mini with no bonnet (extreme over heating precautions) and a red fiesta. It felt good going through the border point in mass, less chance of being screwed over or messed about. There were a few problems with me not having the right stamp on exiting the Turkish side but after getting it stamped about 10 different times we eventually escaped, only to end up standing around for an hour or so at the Georgian side. We were a little apprehensive about the lack of correct vehicle documents again and hoped we got a a tired and uninterested customs guard. Luckily with a bit of persuasion that the part I had was in fact correct and I think to the fact it was the middle of the night, we somehow got through. The extremely thorough customs officials impressed us most, "You have guns and drugs in your Machiner?? No? Ok you go now!" Didn't even open the door.
The change on entering the new country was staggering, the landscape was different and the buildings, cars and people had a very communist feel which I guess lingered from the USSR days of the past.

Also the town of Batumi which sat on the border is horrible, I think we may have been on the 'wrong side of the tracks' as most of the buildings we past were run down, shabby shacks. We took a wrong turn at one point and ended up down a road which just disappeared into nothing, first we knew about it was at 35 mph when the tarmac ran out.

The thought of Mafia ruled neighbour hoods and gun-toting foreigners in the back of our minds did not help the situation especially as we had got ourselves very lost at 1 oclock in the morning. At was at this point that the crash happened, we had pulled up to a red light at a junction, the Citroen in front of us, when the there was an almighty bang and the SJ jolted forwards. We sat there for a moment and the first thing that sprang to mind was our missing brake light after John had reversed into a wall back when we were leaving home. The guy behind must not have seen us stopping and driven straight into the back of us.

We jumped out only to find a very large M class Mercedes wedged under our rear bumper. I checked the SJ for damage and it turned out by some unbelievable luck that he'd hit the exact spot where John had hit the wall, so there no new damage and he couldn't prove that our rear light had been out before he hit us. Then I looked at the Mercedes, or more to the point the front bumper hanging off and the smashed headlight.
I looked up for the inevitable gun-toting Mafia boss who was no doubt going to jump out and shoot us down in the road. The door opened and a old guy swayed out the car clutching his shoulder, he staggered towards us and then attempted to talk, we couldn't understand what he said but recognised the drunken slurs and more to the point the smile on his face. He was actually more concerned with our health and the state of the car. We assured him that both car and passengers were fine and enquired after him. He was OK too and told us to go, so we did, the longer we were there, the more chance of the Police turning up and that was one situation all of us wanted to avoid especially him.

The Citroen had driven up the road slightly, I think to avoid any ensuing gun fight that broke out at the scene of the accident so they were slightly shocked to see us zoom by so soon. We somehow found the right road and headed out of town in the hope we could find a secluded camping spot for the night. By the looks of it Georgians don't go camping much and we were quite keen to find somewhere decent so to avoid the goings on of the previous night.
We drove on for a while eventually coming to a town, we decided that although we maybe more likely to be bothered, it would be safer for us to stay in a more populated area than a dirt track at the side of the road. So we ended up stopping in the centre of a town square which had a central park area full of trees, benches and pathways.
And sure enough five minutes into setting up our tents, the Police turned up. This time the officer didn't say anything, he walked up surveyed the scene, turned and returned to his car. He then pulled a U turn in the road and as he was driving off came the sound of a heavily accented voice over the car's loud speaker, "Welcome to Georgia."

Friday, 7 September 2007

Day 7 Leaving Istanbul and the drive East

We awoke at 9, apparently Osman was accustomed to sleeping in till 12 so was slightly puzzelled by our desire to get up so early but we explained that we had to get moving. There was a small balcony looking out into the street from the living room and John was out looking around at the street. We were all slightly surprised when Osman came in and instantly looked worried ordering John back in immediately. Apparently we shouldn't have been there and he didn't want the neighbours to see us because they would tell his Uncle. He was quite keen for us to leave and told us he couldn't go with us because we must not be seen together. So we said our thanks and left heading back into the centre making a quick stop to have breakfast and sort out some money.

We left Istanbul about 10 and drove out fo the city of the bridge separating Europe and Asia. It was a weird sensation to know you would never drive the SJ in Europe ever again and this was our first major milestone on the rally. We had a few issues gettin out of the sity, there was a toll to get through and everyone was using a specific card which you had to buy, we didn't have one and ended up stuck in front of a barrier with half of Turkey behind us beeping away. In the end someone got out their car, ran over and swiped their card for both of us. We waved our thanks while driving off rather hastily.

We were getting short on time, our impending 5 day visas for Turkmenistan were approaching fast and we still had to cover Georgia, Azerbaijan and get across the Caspian Sea which was several days drive away. Our car was still over heating and we had a few unscheduled stops due to steam occasionally billowing out the bonnet. We drove for several hours, the landscape getting much more mountainous until we found a collection of garages in the middle of no where. There was a row of about ten of them, no idea how they stayed in business with the competition. The AX's exhaust was getting very low and needed some emergency welding so we both pulled in for running repairs. We got our thermostat seal redone and our front and rear differentials and gearbox fluid levels filled up, something we had needed doing since buying the car. They also filled up our brake fluid extinguishing a warning light which had been on for the last 3000 miles. There seemed to be an army of people crowding round the car all very interested in the crazy driving foreigners. We were served several rounds of tea, which came in a small class and with lots of sugar. It was oddly refreshing despite the extremely hot sun beaming down on us. 2 hours later, and 20 dollars a piece for each of the cars and we were on our way.

We drove all day and again into the night stopping around 9, we pulled off the main road down a track which lead through a small village. As we drove through we saw peeping faces through net curtains and blinds obviously slightly puzzled by the sounds of our cars and headlights at this time of night. We drove a little bit further so to be out of sight and camped up on a flat area next to the river. We had just go tour tents up and begun boiling water for dinner when a vehicle appeared making its way don the track. As it approached blue and red lights began flashing form the roof. It pulled to a stop by the cars and four solders jumped out, one of them brandishing an AK47. They rounded us up and tried to talk to us but non of them spoke English. We tried to explain what we were doing without appearing too hostile. One of them was on his phone and obviously trying to find some English. He came back and said "Here, dangerous. You come with us."

We didn't know quite what he meant but we were going to do what they said either way. We packed the enitre camp site up in record time literally stuffing it in the car. We then jumped in, and set off following the solders. They kept their flashing lights on and lead back intot he small village. It turned out that they had two of the villagers in their car who must have called them down, they dropped them off here to join the rest of the village population who had come out to witness our removal.

We reached the main road and turned in the direction of the next town. It wasnt long before our convoy was causing a bit of a hold up with a line of cars behind us. Then to our amazement cars began overtaking 3 car long presession despite the army vehicle still having its flashing lights on. Soon car after car were streaming past us, it was pitch black on this winding road but that wasn't stopping them. And then inevitable happened, a car which was just passing the army vehicle was forced to swerve in to avoid an oncoming car, the army vehicle had nowhere to go but off the side of the road in the gravel, we watched in horror as the events unfolded before us. The soldier driving was quick to act and kept it on the road, immediately the sirens came on and he accelerated after the overtaking car. Slightly Bewidlered we knew what to do straight away and the SJ's accelerator peddle was slammed to the floor, unfortunately Suzuki hadn't designed the SJ410 with high speed pursuits in mind and it made absolutely no difference. The army vehicle was driving off and leaving us, luckily for us the overtaking car had no intention of stopping and was soon out sight. The army vehicle then dropped back and picked us up again.

We drove to the next town where the soldiers made a quick stop at a shop and then they took us to a camp site. It turned out that they had bought some Coke, nuts and mosquito spray for us so when we stopped we had a drink together over a chat about anything we could communicate with hand jestures. They all seemed really friendly and interested in the rally. They finished their drinks and left abruptly telling us that here was "No dangerous" and they would be back in the morning to check on us.
It still remained a mystery as to why we had been moved and the 'danger' that they spoke of. Either way we set up camp, had a few beers and went to bed.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Day 6 Plodov, Bulgaria to Istanbul

We woke early to flush our radiator out in an effort to improve our over heating problems. We had removed the thermostat a few days earlier and we suspected the seal where it had been wasn't holding. We needed to find some silicon soon otherwise one serious overheat and we could warp our engine block. The Polo set off ahead of us and the Camper van's crew were still in bed when we exited the camp site. Again we headed south for Turkey. It was really hot even in the early morning. We hit the Turkish border at midday only to find the team we had met in Belgrade already waiting there. The queues were long and it meant trouble for the SJ so we took to pushing it over the border instead of the constant stopping and starting in the heat. It took us a few hours to get through with us having to buy visas, car insurance and negiotiating the authenticity of our vehicle document. It appeared that I had only brought half of the V5 vehicle registration form and it was the more important side was sitting at home on my desk.

We got through eventually and were on the road to Istanbul. Somehow we managed to time our arrival in Istanbul right in the middle of rush hour. This meant the bad driving and constant beeping of horns was ten times worse than normal. The Citroen boys had picked out the Blue Mosque as where we wanted to head, apparently there was a hostel nearby.

After about 15 minutes of being forced out of lanes, cut up by buses, beeped at by taxis we were pretty much in the centre. At a set of traffic lights we were stationary next ot the curb when a couple of Police motor bikes turned up with officers on, one of them spotted the rally cars and started chatting to Blake. He suggested that we go straight on at the next junction despite it being for the trams only, there was a large no entry sign but he told us to ignore it, follow the tracks round and we would be at the blue mosque. Without further hesitation we set off, the citroen in the lead following a tram down these tracks. People were staying at us as we tore down this hill. We passed through two of the tram stations, the platforms on either side at window height meant we were looking up at the slightly bemused people waiting for their tram as we sailed on by. We even saw another Police car at the bottom of the hill, he didnt seem to bat an eyelid at our appearance from the station. As promised the Mosque was right in front of us and we pulled into a side road right next to a restaurant on the corner. The manager of the restaurant had seen us arrive and was moving cones which marked their private parking an was beckoning us in. He said we could leave the cars there for the night and they would be safe, he then invited us into the restaurant for dinner. It was open air with long low benches covered in rugs and cushions making up the seating. There were large trees over head shading the entire thing and traditional Turkish music playing the background. We sat and ordered four Shish Kebabs and nearly ordered 4 beers before remembering we were in a Muslim country and changed to 4 Cokes instead. The Kebab was delicious, far beyond the rubbish you get in a fast food place in England. The Manager, Osman had been asking about what we were doing and was very excited about it along with most of the staff who all spoke English in varying degrees. Osman then went on to invite us to his Uncle's house who was out of town to stay the night, he finished work at 11.30 so we had a few hours to look round before meeting him back there.

We headed down to the river front and to the flea market that was starting up, they were selling everything imaginable and at the same time nothing that you actually needed. We walked up to the massive and very impressive Mosque that sat looking over the bridge to the old town. The inside was even more impressive, all the walls and the huge domed ceilings so ornately decorated.

We met Osman back at the restaurant as he was finishing work and he was going to take us to meet some of his friends so we jumped in the cars, Blake and Osman in the Citroen and John, Dan and myself squeezed in the front of SJ. Off into the streets of Istanbul again, this time it was quieter and we had a guide but now it was dark there was an increased Police presence and I don't know how we avoided being pulled over. Osman took us to the old town and we went to one of his local haunts. It was a covered area with hundreds of bean bags set round tables, on one side were a line of stalls and food stands. At these tables people were sitting round playing backgammon, rummy and smoking water pipes (Basically you have red hot coals on a grill and you suck the smoke coming off them down through a liquid which can be a flavoured drink of choice, and you in hale the smoke, its a slightly more pleasant and a bit healthier way of smoking). He took us along introducing us to people along the way. It appeared as though this wasn't the usual place for tourists to go as we got a lot of strange looks and were glad we had Osman leading the way. I think he was quite chuffed to have us there and was basically showing us off to his frineds as the crazy adventurers from England.
We didn't stay long and soon were off again in the cars. This time to his cousin's cafe where we played rummy or at least did our best to play (with a lot of guidance for Osman's friends) until 3 in the morning. We then headed right over to the over end of the city to his Auntie and Uncle's one bedroom flat, his other cousin was sleeping in the one bed so I guess his Auntie and Uncle must have slept on the pull out sofa bed in the living room where Osman put us up. I was all very strange surreal but tiredness had got the better of us and we were off to bed pretty quick.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Day 5 The escape from Belgrade and a night in Bulgaria

We awoke next morning to find that the hostel had in fact turned into an oven and we were on the top shelf, (literally I woke up on the 3rd tear of beds and very nearly fell out in confusion to the surroundings). There was one shower and a large queue of people to get in so I decided to go get the car so we could get moving as soon as. Blake who had already fetched the AX gave me a lift up the road, it wasn't far but to get back to the hostel you had to follow the loop round the block as there was a one way street in between. He dropped me off and headed back round, I went to get some change and then to the car to have a bit of a sort out. I then drove up and out of the car park and onto the streets of Belgrade. I turned out heading in the wrong direction to the hostel as I knew I had to do, then it was a case of doubling back round the block and arriving back at the hostel. It didn't go to plan, with a mixture of no left turn junctions, no entry streets and blocked roads I got disorientated fast and very lost. I tried to retrace my steps back to the car park but it was impossible in the busy early morning traffic. I knew I cant have been that far from either the car park or the hostel and decided to keep circling the area in the hope of spotting something familiar. We had arrived in the dark and there was nothing familiar! I came to a junction and decided to take a left turn in the hope it might lead me in the right direction, I moved out into the centre of the road to wait for a chance to cross the traffic, there were a few beebs from cars behind be but there was room to get past. As I turned in a gap in the oncoming traffic I heard a whistle and a Policemen stepped out in front of me signalling for me to stop. He didn't look particularly pleased, neither was I. He asked for my licence and told me I had commited a traffic offence, apparently it was no left turn despite there being no signs to indicate. I tried to use the ignorant English approach which failed miserably. It was a 2000 Dinar for a traffic offence (about £17), I had about 1200 max, I tried to make excuses which didnt work and told him I couldn't pay, showing him the little money I had. In the confusion I had taken off my seat belt to reach down for my drivers licence. He spotted it and said "No seat belt, 1000." I couldn't quite believe what was going on, I couldn't give him 2000 so why was he raising it to 3000.

Then he said, "Ok, you pay 2000 for traffic offence or 1000 for seat belt. No seat belt, yes?"

I agreed "Yes" and he wrote me a ticket, I paid and drove off.
I can't decide if he was giving me a break or whether he just couldn't be bothered with a big fuss.

I drove on and still had no clue of where I was. I even ended up going pass the same Policemen again giving him a wave as I did.

I managed to get in contact with John and we decided the best idea was to meet on the road heading out of town, this was still not easy to find but eventually I got there and much to my relief John, Blake and Dan were waiting for me.

We continued on course heading south. Our opinions of Serbia were pretty low, mixture of rather baron landscape and horrible cities was doing them no favours. But on the drive out of the country we passed through some pretty impressive sceneray, slightly mountainous with winding roads and lots of tall fir trees.

We reached the Bulgarian border by late afternoon, they were relatively quick with all the paper work. While waiting to get through the last gantry into the country a border guard spotted us and recognised the Mongol rally stickers, he beckoned us into an empty lane and waved our passports away while opening the barrier for us, it was then that the engine which had been over heating cut out, and we couldn't get it to start again. The border guard didn't look too impressed and I was worried he might change his mind to his initial welcome to the country, I jumped out and tried to get the starter motor going with a few smacks of the adjustable spanner. It jumped into life and John drove straight through making sure we didn't stall again in No Man's land. I followed in its wake passing over the border in bare feet waving passport in one hand and adjustable spanner in the other. To say the border guards were amused would be an understatement!!

John pulled up or more to the point the car cut out a few hundred yards from the border. It was turning over but wouldn't catch, I suspected the points in the distributor had moved and there was no gap for the spark to jump. John and Blake jumped in the Citroen and decided to drive down the road in the hope of finding a mechanic. Dan and I stayed with the car and tried to isolate the problem. We weren't there long when another team turned up, two guys jumped out and immediately got involved, testing each and every possible fault that could have occured to cause the problem. He soon found out that it was the points as I had suspected. With no proper spacing tools available he improvised with a piece of paper. Within an hour the car was running and he also gave us some tips to sorting out our over heating problem by flushing our radiator.

We owed them both alot and the promise of a decent meal for them when we got to Ulaan Baatar was agreed upon as payment.

We drove into the night again, arriving at the camp site with a blue polo with an Aussy couple in and a Bedford Rascal Camper van with 5 Canadians in. The camp site was next door to an 'Aquatech', an outside pool and bar which had a DJ on, we decided it would be rude not to go and headed in for a few drinks and a late night swim.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Day 4 - Bratislava to Belgrade

When we awoke, the car was still heavily on our minds, its unexplained non starting in the dark was a worry. We definitely pin pointed it to our starter motor and that it must be something seized up in there. Without pulling it all apart there was little we could ascertain. I had an idea and was intent on trying it so I selected the larger of our adjustable spanners and smacked the motor hard on the case, as John turned the key, it simply burst into life! We were back in business for the moment anyway, it would no be a case of how long this little trick would work, and what awkward situation would we be in when we couldn't get it started anymore.

We packed the two cars up and set off, in the night we had been joined by the Ice Cream van and we waved to the guys as we pulled out of the camping area. We were only twenty minutes down the road when a large puff of white smoke came from Tempus' exhaust and their coolant resevoir bottle flew off from their engine bay under the car. We pulled over immediately to find their radiator sizzling again. There was a guy in the lay-by who came over to have a look, he only spoke German and it took a while but we understood that he would drive one of Tempus to Bryno (a few hours drive in the wrong direction) and get their radiator fixed. It was going to be a timely affair either way so we decided we had to push on. We said our farewells and made plans to try meet up later on in the rally.

We headed south again round Bratislava and in the direction of Budapest. The convoy we meant to leave Prague with would only be a few hours ahead of us with any luck, we had started early and big convoys inevitably take a long time to get anywhere. We reached the outskirts of Budapest by midday and parked up on the side of the main road in wait for the convoy. The sun was high and extremely hot, we waited for about 40 minutes and then we saw them, a 20 strong line of crazy stickered up cars appeared in the distance, we raced for the car (it started first time) and as the procession passed in a hail of horns and waves we jumped in the centre of it.

As we entered the city, every head turned to see us drive by, even cars would stop to let us weave in and out of the traffic so that the convoy didn't get broken up, we had people coming over to say hello when we stopped at traffic lights and ask us what we were doing. It was a great moment, unfortunately we were slightly concerned by our rapidly rising engine temperature. The midday son and stationary idling was serious endangering our engine, without moving airflow of the open road we couldn't maintain a safe temperature. We had the car heaters on full tot he point that I was burning my bare feet on the pedals. We made our way across the city to a car park where we all parked up and had a chat, we found a springler on the grass next to it and a shower was in order for majority of us all.

After some lunch the convoy went its separate ways, some where heading east while we would be going south. We met Blake and Dan of the Go North team (blue Citroen AX) who were heading in the same dirertion as us and decided to stick together. We spent the afternoon at the Hot Baths and Springs in the city which had amazing assortment of Saunas, steam rooms, blunch pools and hot outside pools heating by the natural springs.

We were back on the road by 3 with Belgrade in our sights. We crossed the Serbian border late afternoon, it cost us 120Euros car insurance to get in which we had not expected, the alternative would be to turn round and go through Romania (some teams actually did this), we decided against it and paid up. The Serbian roads were considerably worse than the Hungarian. They were single lane roads but with a hard shoulder, it soon came apparent that it was customary that when being over taken that you should move over and drive in the hard shoulder, unfortunately the hard shoulder was in some places only half a lane and the tarmac was falling away towards the edge. We drove through the most amazing thunder storm with fork lightning striking all around the horizon, it was impressive to say the least although the SJ wasn't really suited to rain with poor windscreen wipers, slippery tyres and bodywork like a sive.

We reached Belgrade around 11pm after a long drive. We met some other ralliers on the outskirts and headed in to find somewhere to stay. One of the guys we met had lived here for a number of years and he formed our guide taking us to a multi storey car park for the cars and a hostel for ourselves. It was a horrible place with two large rooms with trible tear bunk beds, it was hot and smokey but would serve a purpose. We went our late to find some food and have some drinks, it would have been a great opportunity to sample some of the local cuisine, we didn't though and instead we ended up in McDonalds which is just as disappointing in Serbia as it is in the UK. We found a small bar which was still open and served into the early hours while we all swapped stories of our rally so far and generally got to know each other.
On the way back to the hostel, we were accompanied by a massive pack of wild dogs who were roaming the streets, it was immediately obvious who the top dog was as he leading the pack, occasionally he would challenge other dogs who would instantly cower with tail between its legs. It was wierd to see them behaving as they would in their natural environment despite roaming the streets of Belgrade, they were unfazed by their surroundings, as they chased cars, crossed major roads and generally went where they wanted.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Day 3 - Lunch with Mafia and the Church of Bones

We stayed the night in the underground car park where we had been allocated space for the rally cars, this was far from fun; very noisy, hot and full of exhaust fumes. The morning was spent getting money, food and water with some time to spare to take in the beautiful surroundings, another visit here is definitely needed.
A large convoy was heading south to Bratislava leaving at midday and we intended to join up with it, we were with Team Tempus Fugit who we had met at the launch in Hyde Park, they were having serious cooling problems with their SJ and we waited around with them for a few hours in an attempt to rectify it. We left just after two and proceeded to get very lost. We eventually found the right road out and also spotted a garage where we stopped to get Tempus' SJ looked at. It was only a small garage with a group of guys standing about. They were instantly intrigued by the two cars and instantly got under the bonnet and worked out the problem. All was needed was some silicon to seal the thermostat housing so one of them, a big guy in a bright green shirt issued one of his companions with some money and sent him off get some. They fixed it and refused all offer of payment. The big guy then offered to show us the way out the city so we all jumped in and he pulled up in a very large Mercedes, a very impressive car for a garage mechanic. He lead us down the main road for a few miles and then pulled in suddenly at a restaurant, apparently he was now taking us for lunch and wouldn't take no for an answer. We parked up, slightly confused and followed him in, he barked orders to the manager and got us a table. Four beers turned up for us (the legal driving limit is 0% in Czech Republic and he was drinking Coke), then four large stakes followed.

He started telling us about how his business was owning properties and this was one of them, he said he didn't, simply waited money to come in.

He also told us how he had a ex wife and son out in Canada but could no longer go there because the Police didn't like him. The Czech Police didn't like him either but it didn't worry him as he had friends in higher places. He told us about his brother in law who was in prison in London for smuggling 100kgs of cocaine into the UK and how he had plans to move to the Caribbean as soon as he had got all his money together.

All four of us were a little apprehensive to say the least at this, and the open road looked very appealing at this point, would we ever make it out alive. Two more of his associates turned up to eat, neither spoke English but made up for it in menacing looks. When the bill came we were unsure whether to offer to pay our share but the big guy gave one of the other two a nod and a pile of bank notes appeared form one of their pockets. We really were being treated.

Next they all trooped outside to check Tempus Fugit's radiator and then a quick picture of all of us and then we made tracks, not quite believing what had just happened.

We headed east towards the Church of Bones, a place where many ralliers visit and also a stop off point for good old Ewan McGregor. It was bit of a drive but certainly worth it. It was weird seeing a rather morbid thing turned into art in such a way. It was a short visit and we were soon on our way again, this time as a convoy of three as we had picked up Duncan and Rob in the Morris Minor.

We headed south with Bratislava as our destination for the night, it wasn't long before we had lost the Minor and the darkness began to fall on the two SJs. It got to 10 and we were still some distance from Bratislava, suddenly Tempus' SJ lost power and were forced to pull over onto the hard shoulder, we followed them in to find they were over heating badly. The only option was to let the engine cool down, meanwhile our SJ which had been standing still idling did exactly the same and we were forced to turn it off. It was pitched black and there were lots of lorries on the road, our broken light cluster meant our hazards were a waste of time, so it was a dangerous spot to be in.
We had to get moving as quickly as possible. Phil from Tempus went ahead and found a camping area only 150metres up the road. It was then that we realised our car wouldn't start, it took me and Rob to push start and John drove off to the camp site while Rob and I jumped in the other SJ and limped along after.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Day 2 - We reach Prague

We set off early (7ish) and headed east for Prague. It was my turn at the wheel and occasionally autopilot took over - finding my self back on the left side of the road - and consequently had oncoming traffic angrily tooting at us!

We drove pretty much solidly until about midday, only stopping for petrol and toilet break. We briefly passed through Denmark and into Germany, where just west of Frankfurt we bumped into a convoy of fellow ralliers which we tagged along with. We soon got bored of the autobahns so tried some German country side out for a couple of hours - which I must say is really nice! Unfortunately we forgot to unplug our inverter and overloaded the battery causing us to require a dangerous jump start facing the wrong way in traffic!

With the car running again we powered on through Germany and after around 14 hours driving we eventually made it into Prague for the Sunday night party.

Well we must dash, next we have Bratislava. The car is doing us extremely proud - starting to wish we could bring her home. We are 1054 miles closer to Mongolia.