Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan has only about 8000 tourists per year, the visa procedure is not quite the easiest. We had a transit visa for five days. On arrival our car was given a GPS tracker and we a map, we should not leave the planned route. 

Directly behind the border we reached the capital Ashgabat. The ambassador of Turkmenistan in London advised us not to take photos, as it is forbidden to photograph public/government buildings. Of course it was not obvious to us what the government is and is not, so I kept my camera clicking, mostly out of the car.

Ashgabat is like a perfectly laid out city from Anno or Simcity. Everything is white, from marble, buildings to cars only in white or silver. Bright sidewalks, traffic lights made of stainless steel, every tree and every shrub perfectly laid out and cut. Only 5 million people live in the entire country, which is about the size of Spain. The capital seems busy – but in a strange way. The buildings are mostly empty. There is a university, but no students. The very few people there seem like actors on the Truman Show. Soon the suspicion comes up that the whole town is just a big fake. It’s more illusion than reality.

After a dry week of heat in Iran, we spent the first night in a 5 star hotel with pool. One week in Iran had left us very thirsty. The pool was officially closed from 21 o’clock but our private pool party still went to 3 o’clock in the morning.

 

After two nights in Ashgabat we made our way to the crater of Derweze (or also: “The gate to hell”). During drilling in 1971, geologists happened to find an underground cave filled with natural gas. The ground under the drilling platform collapsed, creating a large hole with a diameter of about 70 meters. To avoid the release of the toxic gas, it was decided to burn it. Contrary to the original hope of geologists, the fire did not go out after a few days, but continues to be active 46 years later. The crater is about 5 km from the main road. The first top off-road occasion for our car.

Of course we got stuck in the sand several times, 4-5 times. Our car doesn’t have the perfect ground clearance for this kind of terrain 😉 . There were several local scammers on motocross bikes that were quite annoying. The trucks that passed the track for work would have pulled us out for free or 1-2€ but the motocross bikers kept telling the truckers to charge 20$, really to puke. Of course, we refused with thanks and then always blocked the track.

At some point by chance one or another rally car came by and helped us out of the jam free of charge.

After hours in the sandbox we could see the glow of the crater.

We camped right at the edge of the crater. Fortunately, the wind did not change at night, on the other side of the crater it was a bit warmer, almost sauna temperatures.

On the way back we gave our gas tank had its bell rung, so far everything is fine, but the fuel gauge now stays at 3/4. But have already done a test, rolled out on the last drop at a gas station and made 404km with a “full” tank.

And on the roads we’ve already easily had 6-7 times the rims rocked by potholes. A suitable hammer for bending to size is worth its weight in gold. So far Markus is the record holder with three rims at the same time.

Iran

Iran

Yeah, our longest wait on the border yet. The processing of the customs forms for the car took approx. 6 hours. From now on there were 5 teams in convoy: convoy Thumbs up . However one should not show the “thumbs up” here to older people as it is an insult here. The kids don’t seem to mind though.

On the second day we lost two cars from our convoy of 5, without mobile phone and internet, if the tour guide falls asleep and doesn’t stop them from speeding away, something like this happens quickly. After +30min waiting time at the roadside, the missing two teams arrived. Team Fat Penguin had a breakdown, and a local stopped immediately and solved the problem with the fuel line within 10min.

Voluntary hike in Tabriz, half took the cable car and the other half of the group hiked up. With the temperatures here one might think twice about the walk, luckily it was windy.

Our tour guide Rashed in a good mood, 30min later in deep sleep.

It’s just incredible here. I have never met such guest(friendly) people. Everyone welcomes us mega cordially and is constantly saying hello. Where are u from? Welcome to Iran! I can’t believe it. On the Tollroads we passed free of charge, and we were stopped on the highway to take pictures, invited to eat etc.

Repair of the ABS problem and bending of the skid plate for the equivalent of 7€.

Uphill and which car wimp out first? The 4×4 Fiat Panda :D.

The children are enthusiastic about the dragon car.

The food is delicious and inexpensive, but unfortunately there is not so much choice. Almost everywhere only Kebap (meat skewer / lamb, chicken or beef). A plate of kebap costs 1-1,50€ and a steak, if one is on offer, 4€. Everything, of course, with rice, rice, rice or bread, every meal. For breakfast we always serve thin flatbread with curd cheese and honey. 

Rob and Robin drove in front of us, suddenly the exhaust was smoking quite suspiciously so we stopped immediately. What’s the matter? Rob had measured the oil level quickly in the morning, thought there was no more oil in the engine and tipped 3L (which corresponds to a complete oil change, so to speak, was a “little” too much). 

We were stopped and checked again and again by the police, at the beginning the policemen are a bit grim but afterwards super friendly.

The first camels in the wild, more or less.

The official exchange rate of Euro to Iranian Rial is about 1:50.000, but on the black market you get 100.000 Rial per Euro. Turkmenistan is even starker. Official price 1 EUR = 4.2 Manat / On the black market 1€ = 17.2 Manat. Due to the extremely favourable exchange rates, one litre of petrol costs 10 cents in Iran and 8.7 cents in Turkmenistan.  Fill the tank up for 3,50-4,00€. Money exchange at the border to Turkmenistan but still in Iran. Nice colored bills, almost like Monopoly’s.

Border crossing to Turkmenistan, of course the road had to be repaired while we waited at the gate.

Republic of Artsakh

Republic of Artsakh

The last night we spent in Jermuk and the next morning we visited the local waterfall. Afterwards we made our way to the Republic of Artsakh. The Republic is a stabilized de facto regime in Nagorno-Karabakh that is not recognized by the international community. The United Nations and the Council of Europe regard the area, which is predominantly inhabited by Armenians, as part of Azerbaijan.

Further information here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic_of_Artsakh

At the border we picked up Pablo (USA). Pablo has been on the road from Vietnam to Scotland for 5 months and travels only with free accommodation and free transport, so only by hitchhiker. We were his 535th ride.

After arrival in our guesthouse we chose the next river to cool ourselves off from the hot temperatures. We let Pablo sleep in our car and went sightseeing the next morning together, visited a museum and a carpet factory. I could not resist an unbeatable special offer and bought this great carpet (of course with certificate).

A German gas pump that seems to have got lost. Somewhere in Armenia.

In the afternoon we visited the cave village of Khndzoresk – Maps.me always leads us on absolutely top-suitable roads. Instead of to the visitor parking lot we were navigated back around the mountain down to the caves. When it became to sketchy we made a stop and ran the last meters. Free entry to the cave attraction.

On the way back, the car had to fight pretty hard to get back up the steep mountain path. So everybody excited the car and made a running jump and push so it still managed to escape the valley.

Grayson new couch.

Towards dusk we had only 50km of dirt road in front of us, if you can call it that. The installation of underride protection and light strip have definitely paid off. The ABS warning light came on at 20km, we stopped and checked to make sure we continued with brakes. At a top speed of 20-30 km/h, of course, it takes a little time.

Armenia – Part 1

Armenia – Part 1

Just across the border and Armenia is really cool from the beginning. Today we have many pictures to post and less text but the pictures speak for themselves :).

Unfortunately the road is closed due to construction work, in the end we were able to continue after a few minutes.

First stop: Haghartsin Monastery:

Second stop: Sevanawank Monastery

Capital Yerevan: Yerevan Cascade / 560 steps 😉

Garni Temple:

After several hours up the mountain at +40 degrees outside temperature, we had to let the engine cool down several times (110 degrees).

Norawank Monastery:

Here we met Team Wheels4all (two Spanish and one Argentinean, a very nice team)

At the end of the day there was a small adventure tour through an area fire. Partly we had a view of 0m. Got through without incident in the end.

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan

Since our Iran tour starts in Armenia we actually didn’t have to head into Azerbaijan but we had already purchased visas so we decided to make a day trip of it! We drove about 45 minutes to the Georgia/Azerbaijan border only to be treated by the most friendly border guards I have ever met! (Seriously I fist bumped the border guard)

The car took some time to clear customs so we were relaxing at the border gate when 2 older men pointed to some extra beer and snacks on the table they had ordered for us! 

After hanging out at the border gate for about an extra Hour with these guys drinking we decided it was time to start actually driving into the country. 

Whilst driving we had to go through a military passport control checkpoint, while the military was checking our information a very nice gentleman pulled up to make sure everything was okay and took us to a fantastic restaurant. After finishing eating he tried insisting on hosting us for more beers and vodka the next night, sadly we only had one day to spend in azerbaijan. 

After about 3 hours of driving we ended up at the city of ganja! Honestly the city had quite an odd vibe. The streets were huge and empty, we even found an almost abandoned theme park. Honestly one of the creepiest things of come across in the middle of a large city.

After hanging out with a few of the creepiest Disney characters I had ever laid my eyes on we continued through ganja.

After seeing some of the hottest temperatures as of yet we bumped into a huge empty extremely overdone square on the outside of the city. I’ve never seen something like this before. It felt very weird to be around. With barely anyone around.

After driving 3 hours back to the border we arrived to it being closed! We talked with the border guards for a few minutes and they informed us there was one about an hour away. Or 16 km and no bridge haha. but before we left the border, the guard we had met that morning insisted on buying us all coffee. So after the coffee we started the treck through some awful roads in the dark!

We finally made it back to Georgia and into tsbilis around 1am. When we got back we found out that one of the best clubs in the world was throwing a huge event… not much sleep was had that night. Bassiani here we come! Do not drink or storage alcohol in the Dorm! If you follow the rules it should not look like this:

Georgia

Georgia

You know those things that work way better the second time around? Well this border was one of those. Having read the horror stories of 9hr+ wait time at the border turkey-georgia online and then seeing first hand the line up and correspondingly longer faces of the rallies further back, we decided to make the 2-3 hour drive to the mountain crossing. Although more treacherous we initially favored the windy roads to boiling stop and start of the lineup. That quickly changed as darkness set and the pavement at altitude proved treacherous, to say nothing of the highly questionable behavior of the local truck drivers on the skinny roads. Stopping for fuel we pulled the plug on the mountainous pass and decided over a lovely dinner at a restaurant with a wraparound outdoor patio fishtank to flow back at our leisure to the border and wait it out after dark. Turns out the border only took 90 minutes to cross at that time and we were on our merry way. Markus and me went our for Partying after arrived around 1am in the hostel. I went home at 4 and Markus around 9am.

The views of the city in Georgia were spectacular, unfortunately only one of our troop managed to take them in, as most of the team was recovering. Thanks Seth. That being said, down in the streets was pretty phenomenal as well. This whole region of the world is steeped in massive amounts of history that is still strongly flavors their culture and food. Mhmmm. After walking around the streets close to the riverside the first morning returning to the hostel was even more of a treat. The establishment Fabrika could be a post unto itself. Two partners years ago bought a derelict soviet textiles factory and the results of their efforts are impressive. It is now a active art installation that features half a dozen restaurants, massive lounge packed every night with both locals and foreigners enjoying the atmosphere that could only be the polar opposite of its industrial soviet origins. Street art covered every square meter of wall space, bright and vibrant in contrast to the drab concrete poured for the original factory. Other pluses were its own club, international food, VW van photo both, classic cars parked about and very impressive couches, some over 5 meters long. The cheap draft also a plus. All in all the three days spent there was a lovely necessity, so nice to stretch our legs and give Bulma her well deserved rest.

Istanbul

Istanbul

Overnight at a camping site by the sea in Bulgaria with Team Tyrannosaurus Wreck and Team Fat Penguin. Our roof tarpaulin had already dismantled itself, the rain in Bulgaria was really heavy, even the rain protection from my backpack did not help. All clothes completely soaked, also the sleeping bags. Of course, that was very pleasing. With the distance we travel, sunshine in the morning means absolutely nothing. The night was accordingly a bit cool without sleeping bag but feasible. Team Tyrannosaurus Wreck had already sprung a suspension spring, we decided to be so nice and provided one of our backup suspension springs and had it professionally installed by our chief technician Oliver. Mainly with the creative use of cable ties.

Blind Passenger:

So, from Turkey it is now over with the mobile EU Internet. Our offline Navi-App Maps.me is not as reliable as one may be used to. Very often exits are closed and the proposed turn is forbidden. Missed an exit in the gigantic Istanbul and needed about 45min to get back on the highway, after prompting to cross several pedestrian bridges. Upon arrival at the hostel we ended the evening with a couple of beers from the roof terrace of our hostel (overlooking the Bosporus) and a mega delicious dinner in a restaurant around the corner. The next day we explored the area, passed the big mosques and visited the big bazaar. In the evening Grayson and I visited a historical Hamam from 1481 and had us scrubbed really nice. Adriano Celentano was supposedly already there and other celebrities ;-). I think that was the first day we didn’t drive.

 

Living at the limit:

We have just arrived at a campsite in the town of Samsun. We had 23 o’clock and the gate was unfortunately locked, luckily the security from the harbour around the corner had the phone number of the campsite security and he let us in. Was a long day today, quickly write the blog entry and then off into the tent. Tomorrow we will continue to Georgia.

Ukraine to Romania

Ukraine to Romania

From the Ukraine we drove quite fast on to Moldavia (Land of Sunflowers). In the somewhat large city of Bălți we had a delicious dinner. Unfortunately there is no hostel in Bălți, but we found a cheap hotel, 7€ per person, a toilet down the hall, tiny rooms and no showers. It was definitely enough though. On the way to the hotel Robin and Rob were about 200m ahead and were pulled over, allegedly because of a red-running traffic light. The officer attempted to charge 50€ (exaggerated). After a long time they asked for an official ticket, but the officials probably didn’t want to do paperwork and in the end they didn’t have to pay.

Between Moldova and Ukraine there is an independent territory which is not internationally recognized: Transnistria. The secessionist part of the country is beyond the control of the Moldovan government. That sounded interesting, so we decided to go to Transnistria. The entry was quite unproblematic – we got a transit visa for 10h. There is actually only one larger city, the capital Tiraspol. Here we made a short stop for lunch, a little sightseeing and to exchange some banknotes that have no value anywhere else in the world.

At the re-entry into the Ukraine there was a complication, because we only had an entry stamp from Moldova but no exit stamp. Makes sense somewhere since there are no Moldavian border posts at the border of Moldova/Transnistria, since Transnistria is not recognized. After some back and forth and the support of a nice French EU official we were able to re-enter the Ukraine without any problems. And got the necessary exit stamps from a Moldavian border guard who happened to be there.

In the late afternoon we reached Odessa, a large city on the Black Sea. After hours in the city traffic we also found a nice little hostel. After unloading and stowing away all our stuff we went out for a few beers and a delicious dinner (2×0,5L beer + food for the equivalent of 3,27€). It was really good after all the driving from early to late the last few days.

Bulma successfully completed the first off-road test this afternoon without any problems. A dirt road next to the fields was more pleasant to drive than the actual concrete road, as it was are often unspeakably bad and had more holes than a Swiss cheese. The self-made skid plate has already paid off several times.

Unfortunately there is no border crossing between Ukraine and Romania so we have to enter Moldavia again for less than one KM and leave for Romania after 5min. That unfortunately meant every border crossing added an easy 1-2 hours for paperwork and customs control.

Slovakia – Ukraine

Slovakia – Ukraine

After the start we spontaneously joined Robin & Rob to head east, instead of heading southwest as we had planned. After some detours we arrived late in the evening at a camping site in the Tatra Mountains (Slovakia).

After a delicious breakfast that only cost 3€, we moved further east and stopped at a lake and later at a castle, which we had seen from the motorway. We hiked all the way to the top. A little movement, when you otherwise sit in the car for almost the whole day, is great.

At noon we spontaneously decided to drive to Ukraine without any preparations; after all, that’s the point of the rally :D. Hours later at the border our car made a good impression, and when one of the border guards had to radio our license plate, he laughed. We got through mostly without problems, but had not received a stamp from customs and had to drive back to another post. It was all a bit disorganized and just not clear to us. Robin & Rob did not have all the papers with them; specifically they did not have all of the insurance documents that the border guards wanted. After much back and forth, the guard asked them for money. Both simply played dumb and at some point the queue of cars was so long behind them that they were allowed to go. Done, all across the border, after over 2 hours. That was about 8:00 p.m. Welcome to Ukraine.

After several hours of driving we stopped somewhere in nowhere around midnight in a motel, three double rooms for 12€ each. So 6€ per person, can’t say anything bad about that. Because we couldn’t read the menu, we ordered something random for breakfast. Was quite tasty ;-). Lunch is served for breakfast in Ukraine.

We’re now heading for Moldova. The roads are often so full of potholes that you have to be very careful. Everyone drives swerving around both sides of the road to avoid the holes.

Start – Lets go!

Start – Lets go!

The start area was awesome, constructed in Mad Max style. Shoutout to the organizers for the great work!

mongolian wrestling

(Photo with the Turkmen ambassador and her husband – she gave a speech about what to consider when you are in Turkmenistan, what you can and can’t do.)

After a long night and the official launch ceremony this morning, we are now on our way east. Budapest was our first idea for today, but it changed, now we’re heading towards the Tatra Mountains.