Howdy readers! It’s Cameron here, bringing you delayed live updates of life on the road to Mongolia.
It’s Saturday 30th as I write this and we’ve made it alive to our first designated rest day of our journey, in Istanbul (not Constantinople). So we’re now in the first country outside of the European Union, first country where we had to get a visa (of the “fifteen Euros, buy at the border” variety), first country where we had to buy car insurance at the border and yet actually feels more developed than the last couple of countries we’ve been through.
To recap, our last update left you on Wednesday as we were autobahn-storming along the M1 in Hungary towards Budapest, foot to the floor at our maximum speed of about 115 km/h. We stopped for lunch in Budapest and I (Cameron) faced the first time where vegetarianism appeared to not be an option. That’s going to be a bit of a theme from now on. Budapest was pretty run down and we got our first parking ticket of the rally, deciding that it’s probably going to be too hard for them to actually track down and fine international tourists – another sentiment that we expect to be a bit of recurring theme.
Hungary was a bit of a drive-through country for us. After our lunch stop (because we were hungry in Hungary), we set off again on the highway to Oradea on the Romanian border. This was mostly a one lane-each-way affair with a speed limit of 110 km/h but trucks dawdling along at 70. Hungarians solved this source of irritation by overtaking at literally any possible occasion, including blind summits and corners, and long straights where there was clearly visible oncoming traffic. We’ve taken been referring to dangerous overtaking maneuvers as “Hungarian overtakes” from then on.
As soon as we crossed the border into Romania, we immediately felt a change in “feel”. Nobody was in a hurry here. We left the main highway (truck route) for a smaller road which passed through a mountain range, dotted with small towns where pedestrians wandered the streets with abandon and cars were completely okay with just giving way to them whenever necessary. The on-road population seemed to be about 90% cars, 10% horses. As we drove through the villages in the late evening as the sun was setting, locals were sitting on their porches just watching the world pass them by.
Unfortuantely, all of this meant that our progress was a bit less swift than originally hoped, so after a stop for dinner at what seemed to be a Romanian roadhouse – petrol station plus restaurant plus hotel – we ended up driving twisty mountain roads until we reached the largish town of Deva at 1am and collapsed into the nearest hotel bed.
Twisty mountain roads were the general flavour of Romania. Leaving Deva we presesed on towards the city Sibiu, near where the Transfagarasan Highway begins. For those who haven’t heard of it, the Transfagarasan is a 90km long mountain pass that climbs two kilometres up into the air and then down again. Originally built for strategic Communist reasons, it’s now known for its fantastic views. Words completely fail to describe how awesome this drive was, though we’ll have pictures up soon which will no doubt also fail to capture the full awesomeness.
The Transfagarasan took a few hours to complete in our overloaded Skoda, almost entirely in second gear. Afterwards, we took the main roads and freeways into Bucharest, then immediately out again to Bulgaria. In this time we were pulled over a few times by friendly police officers who sensed we were lost and offered us directions. At long last we reached the Bulgarian border, which apparently required crossing a toll bridge. The bridge trolls required six Euros. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any Euros because none of the last few countries we’d been to used them. We’d also used up the last of our Romanian lei. There were no credit card facilities and the nearest ATM was several kilometres away and we couldn’t drive to it because we were half-way across the national border. Eventually we found some left over Euro small change and gave it to the bridge troll who seemed surprised we didn’t just drive off without playing.
While we were parked there and Patrick and Adon were trying to locate money-obtaining facilities, I (Cameron) attempted to sleep in the back seat. Unfortunately the parking spot we’d found blocked trucks trying to leave the toll gate. One of the border officials came out and gabbled something to me in Romanian. Giving her a blank look and pointing to myself saying “English!”, she gestured a truck hitting me and said “Camion! Booooof!” After moving the car, and returning to my back seat pillow, the official said something like “Schleppe! Si grande, eh?” So I attempted to sleep.
Bulgaria, too, was a bit of a drive-through country. It was the first country we’ve been through that used the Cyrillic alphabet; luckily, Patrick had been boning up on it before we got there and could attempt to pronounce / transliterate a few of the place names.
We stopped for lunch in a country town somewhere and attempted to order food from the bartender who didn’t speak English. Adon ended up with something yellow and greasy containing probably chicken, I ended up with roast beef completely covered in cheese, gravy and broccoli and Patrick ended up with a T-bone steak with gravy and mushrooms. I also ordered a vodka; for about 75 Australia cents I got 50 mL of something very drinkable and highly alcoholic. Just what I was after when it was my turn to drive next! After some more gesturing and attempting to speak Bulgarian we managed to get some water, too.
After that, it was more driving along some mostly fairly rubbish roads to the Turkish border. The Bulgarian passport control dude found it difficult to believe that Patrick was actually the same person as the one in the passport photo, thanks to the blonde hair and mohawk. The Turkish passport control officer complimented me on my bow tie. Unfortunately, he wasn’t so keen on our car’s insurance situation – I thrust our UK motor insurance certificate (which covers all of the EU, i.e. not Turkey), and he decided it was inadequate. Fortunately for 74 American dollars we could purchase a piece of paper written in Turkish which supposedly covered us.
With the formalities completed, we were out of the European Union and straight onto the Turkish motorway blasting our way towards Istanbul, the city that straddles two continents and thus our last stop in Europe. After a short distance along the motorway, it became clear that the direct route to Istanbul was a toll road. Unfortunately, the toll required some kind of radio transponder to pay for it. Not that we had any Turkish lira cash on us to pay for any kind of toll yet, anyway. We drove straight through the gates, completely ignoring the alarms going off at the toll booths, and continued to Istanbul.
Istanbul has been a pretty amazing city. In a car, it’s absolute chaos with no semblance of order or road rules, and yet somehow we managed to find our way to Sultanahmet where we found a hotel to stay the night. Today, as a pedestrian, it’s been fantastic wandering around the city, bartering with vendors at the Grand Bazaar, looking at the Blue Mosque (which we couldn’t enter because we were wearing shorts), eating Turkish food and Turkish coffee, and generally playing tourist. On our way out, other cars stopped beside us at traffic lights kept trying to talk to us or giving us vague encouraging gestures, although a few noticed Iran on our list of countries and gave us disapproving looks.
This instalment of our story ends much like the last one, on the motorway once again – this time heading out of Istanbul and towards the Iranian border as fast as we possibly can.
Until next time,