July 21, 2013

The “Rally” really begins…

The last four day’s driving has been “intense” to say the least. Demanding roads, long (really long) hours, my first encounter with border controls and checkpoints… But I’ve made it to Volgograd according to schedule (I’m sure Isabel will be thinking “yeah, right!”) and so far the car is behaving nicely.

Off to Romania – Transition Day (17/07/2013):

The initial plan was to dash by Hungary into Romania where I had booked a bunk bed in a cosy youth hostel in Bucharest; a mere 1,066km according to Google Maps or “the RedBull day” as I called it. But what was originally intended as a pit stop in Budapest turned into a 6h stay at a local mall to get my TomTom sorted (I’d been travelling without maps for 2 days) and replace my only sweater, lost in Frankfurt. Tip for travellers, Starbucks provides more than coffee and sandwiches ;-).

Since making it to Bucharest was no longer an option, I used some of my spare time to research a new destination and settled for Sibiu, a small town in southern Transylvania, not far from the Transfagarasan (road DN7C) Top Gear’s 2009 Best Road in the World.

It was already past 10pm when I made it to the border and met some of the other teams that were deciding where to camp for the night. Among them was chicken man, now in a more suitable attire, telling the story about how he was almost run over by a truck who had apparently not seen him… “mate, that’s because you are travelling with no lights!” one of the other guys said.

It was 4:30am when I made it to Sibiu (clock had moved forward 1h) and rang the youth hostel’s door bell with no luck. I tried a second time and… no luck, “mmm I thought the web where I read about this place said 24h reception…”. I tried a third and last time and a few minutes later a grumpy Dutch opened a window and after a few words agreed to open for me. The morning after he was super nice but mysteriously the web no longer says 24h reception :-)

Three mini-rallies in a day (18/07/2013):

After five hours of sleep and two coffees I packed everything into the car and got on the road again. For those of you who don’t know Romania it has some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen and very friendly locals. As for the Tranfagarasan…

Liked it?, be my guest while I drive up and down the mountain (achtung, the clip is 29min long!!!)

This “spaghetti” road ranks high up there with Trollstigen (Norway) and the Stelvio and Gavia passes (Switzerland / Italy), the later two Top Gear’s Best Road in the World before Clarkson and friends found this gem in the heart of Romania. I’m sure my friends Daniel and Torsten would have enjoyed it more than kids like candy.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful until I made it to the border with Moldova, and then the fun began:

1.- The intelligence test: Romanian custom officers were quite nice but warned Moldovans wouldn’t let me in without a green card, which of course I didn’t have, and therefore were reluctant to let me through. “What about if I buy a green card/insurance for Moldova?”, that did the trick. Moldovan custom officers didn’t seem to care much to be honest

2.- The courage test: quoting a fellow rider about Moldovan roads “These roads don’t have potholes, they are trenches!!”. Don’t believe us?, judge for yourself:

(These are not in Moldova but Ukraine, but helps seeing them in daylight. More than a road with potholes, south of Moldova is all a big pothole with bits of tarmac here and there)

3.- Advanced negotiation skills: one piece of advice I had received was to watch out for border control officers and policemen in general, as they’ll normally request some sort of gift (cash, tobacco or others) or make your life more difficult. With this in mind I had bought and selectively placed two packets of cigarettes in the car and approached the Ukrainian border with confidence.

    • Officer: purpose of your visit and anything to declare?
    • Me: planning to drive this car to Mongolia (the officer’s eyes roll up) and nothing to declare
    • Officer: are you driving on your own?, mmm, crazy, crazy
    • Me: (big smile)
    • Officer: alcohol or tobacco?
    • Me: just a packet of cigarettes, let me show you, here, do you want any?
    • Officer: no, no, no narcotics (just became a big fan of this guy)
    • Officer: that flag is from Bilbao, Athletic!, I’m a fan of Spanish football
    • Me: aha (don’t like where this is going…)
    • Officer: souvenir for me?
    • Me: sorry I don’t understand
    • Officer: the flag, is it a present for me?
    • Me: (sure!, as if I wanted to have the two Isabels as enemies going forward) sorry I only have one and is for Mongolia, for when I get there
    • Officer: so no flag?, OK (sad face), give me your documents (opps)

… 2 minutes later

    • Officer: here you have, OK for you to go. Listen my friend (taking me to a side), the flag, souvenir?
    • Me: (with a very very very sad face) sorry, only one and is for Mongolia, I need it there
    • Officer: and do you have a smaller one or a poster?
    • Me: (me thinking that I’ve met a true fan) no, so sorry, maybe next time

4.- The endurance test: after clearing the border I had another 3-4 hours of joyful ride to Odessa where I didn’t make it until 5am (had to move the clock forward again). My initial intention was to make it 3-4 hours earlier, but borders, checkpoints (of which I had a few), a pitch black night and zigzagging thought trucks and road bumps/potholes didn’t help.This hostel did indeed have 24h reception service (a huge bald guy you don’t want to argue with) so I jumped straight into bed and didn’t worry about the rules until the day after

Cosy entrance
Will this be a *** or **** hotel?
Easy rules to follow
Specially at 5am after a whole day of driving!!!

Taking it easy to Mariupol (Ukraine) and Volgograd (Russia) (19-20/07/2013):

Woke up 4 hours later with the intention to walk around the city a bit, relax, and slowly make my way to Mariupol with plenty pit stops along the way.

Beautiful church with all the interior in white marble
The central market
If only I had my 127…
… or one of these
Bus stop in the middle of nowhere
and adjacent luxurious toilet facilities
(lucky you don’t get to smell it!)

And hey, it was only 11:30pm when I got to the hotel!

After a hearty breakfast I stopped by a local supermarket to buy some groceries (including coffee, soups, rice noodles, nuts and cured meats for my days of camping solo in Mongolia) and plenty of water, programmed the route in my TomTom (good to have you back!), choose one of Ross and Annie’s CDs, and set off towards my next border experience.

Russian Border (I don’t think you were allowed to take this…)
Difficult choice, horse meat or “Xamoh Ceppaho”?
Beautiful church
Old vs New
Arriving in Volgogrado
Stopping for dinner
Total bill RUB 80 (EUR 1.88), what did I eat?

Only thing worth mentioning about the border control is that the lowest ranking soldier on the Ukrainian side tried getting his daily souvenir from me but encountered some passive resistance (“sorry, me no entender”) and gave up. On the Russian side however, they were just unbelievably helpful and friendly:

  • one soldier seeing that I was a foreigner travelling alone took me to a special window where I was dealt with straight away
  • the customs officer and I exchanged some jokes about the craziness of the race (“why would you do this… alone?, why not Antarctica?”, “good idea, I’ll tell my mum!” :-)), the crappy Ukrainian and Moldovan roads (“roads, what roads?”), his English/my Russian (his a bit better I’d say)…
  • and I was finally greeted with a Welcome to Russia, dasvidaniya, and good luck!

which means that my mum may have been right all along and smiling and being nice to others does indeed open you doors (in a quite strict sense here!). Eskerrik asko ama 😎

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